Commentary: Senate needs to act on shoreline access

By Thomas J. Gibson, Jr.
Posted 6/13/22

The Rhode Island General Assembly has a singular opportunity in this session to end years of chaos and confusion regarding where Rhode Islanders can exercise their constitutionally-protected rights …

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Commentary: Senate needs to act on shoreline access

Posted

The Rhode Island General Assembly has a singular opportunity in this session to end years of chaos and confusion regarding where Rhode Islanders can exercise their constitutionally-protected rights at the shoreline, and to confirm the traditional and historic boundary of the public’s rights. We are now two-thirds of the way through the legislative process, with one important step to go: Senate action.

The “rights of fishery, and privileges of the shore” are enshrined in the Rhode Island Constitution, and date to the 1663 Rhode Island Charter granted by King Charles II. Unfortunately, an overly-technical 1982 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision interpreting the shoreline boundary, coupled with changing shoreline conditions and ever-increasing development, has resulted in confusion, conflict, inconsistent enforcement, and even unwarranted prosecutions of citizens exercising these rights. 

In March, a House Special Legislative Commission chaired by Rep. Terri Cortvriend (representing Portsmouth and Middletown), in partnership with the vice chairman, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (representing Block Island and much of South County to Westerly), issued its report. The Commission achieved a common-sense consensus: the “Mean High Water Line” boundary is obsolete and unenforceable, and should be replaced by an easily recognizable, observable and traditional reference, the “Recognizable High Tide Line,” along with a six-foot landward extension to allow dry access at high tide. The commission membership was bipartisan, and included representatives of all the competing shoreline interests as well as experts in coastal law and policy. The commission’s achievement in attaining consensus among members representing such diverse interests was remarkable. 

Clearing the next hurdle was no less remarkable. House Bill 8055 Sub A would make the commission’s recommendations law. The bill is a common-sense return to the historic norm in understanding where one has a right to exercise these privileges — where there is a right to be —without interference. 

It is equally important to recognize what the bill does not do, which is to make any changes to what activities are included in the “rights and privileges of the shore. Interpreting those rights remains the responsibility of the courts. This bill is about “where,” not “what.” The underlying wisdom in this consensus solution was validated when the bill cleared the Rhode Island House by a unanimous vote of 64-0 on June 2, 2022. 

One final, important step remains. The Rhode Island Senate must now pass H 8505 Sub A, or an as-yet-to-be introduced Senate companion bill. The Senate has an important role in the process, and understandably needs to discharge its responsibilities with diligence. The issue is well known, in need of legislative action for decades, and the solution has now been validated by a unanimous House. 

The Senate still has time in this session to act. The Senate must seize this moment and end years of chaos and confusion at the shoreline, confirm the traditional and historic extent of the public’s rights, then get the bill to Governor McKee for his signature. 

The writer is a Newport resident and board member of Friends of the Waterfront. He is the former chief of staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and served as counsel on the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee under the late Sen. John H. Chafee.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.