House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi recently announced the appointment of the members of a special legislative committee that will study the issue of public access to the shoreline under legislation sponsored by Rep. Terri Cortvriend and passed by the House in June.
Under the resolution (2021-H 5469A) that created it, the 12-member special legislative commission will study and provide recommendations on the issues relating to lateral access along the Rhode Island shoreline, with a goal of reporting back to the General Assembly next spring.
The commission will include Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), Rep. Blake A. Filippi (R-Dist. 36, New Shoreham, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly); Michael Rubin, who will serve as a resident of a coastal community; Coastal Resources Management Council Executive Director Jeffrey Willis; David Splaine, representing the Rhode Island Realtors Association; Read Porter, representing the Marine Affairs Institute and Rhode Island Sea Grant legal program at Roger Williams University; Dennis Nixon of the Marine Affairs Department at University of Rhode Island; Save The Bay Executive Director Topher Hamblett; land use attorney Mark P. McKenney; Mark Boyer of the Rhode Island Society of Professional Land Surveyors; retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty and a representative of the Attorney General’s Office with experience in shoreline access issues, to be appointed by the attorney general.
An organizational meeting is planned Thursday, Aug. 26, at 2 p.m. at the State House.
The right of Rhode Islanders to access the shoreline has been inalienable since it was written into the state constitution in 1843. Yet exactly where the public shoreline ends and private property begins has always been as tumultuous and unsettled as the waves washing along Rhode Island’s shores.
A 1982 state Supreme Court case established the boundary of the public’s shore access at the mean high tide line, defined as the average of high tides over an 18.6-year cycle, which continually changes with the shifting sands of the coast. The Supreme Court’s decision has led to much conflict because it is nearly impossible for anyone walking along the shore to know where that shifting line is.
In 1986, the voters of Rhode Island overwhelmingly supported an amendment to the state constitution strengthening the description of the privileges to the shore enjoyed by Rhode Islanders.
“There have been disagreements about where the public’s access ends and private property begins for centuries. While there have been efforts to clarify the public’s rights over the years, rising sea levels and erosion are changing the coast, and creating more conflicts along the way,” said Representative Cortvriend. “There are many questions about how Rhode Island is supposed to determine and protect access rights, and we need to identify some clearer answers. I very much look forward to the interesting and important work of this commission.”