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Protesters fight for our constitutional right to access ‘privileges of the shore’



“Lines are being drawn by the very few who can afford to decide where the lines go,” said Scott Keeley. “Lines are being drawn straight through your Rhode Island constitutional rights to the shoreline. So we’re here to draw the line. We’re here to enjoy our rights of the Rhode Island shoreline, even if someone has decided that sitting equals trespassing.”

Last June, Scott Keeley was arrested by the South Kingstown Police for willful trespass after picking up seaweed on a private beach. Though the charges were dismissed, and the police, according to Keeley, apologized, Keeley organized a protest Saturday morning to fight for Rhode Island’s constitutional right to access the beach.

Over 150 people attended.

Scott Keeley

The protesters met on Charlestown Town Beach, and then deliberately walked west onto the nearby private beaches just over the line, in South Kingstown. They brought ten foot long cords and ribbons with them, to measure ten feet out from the “wet,” that is, ten feet beyond where the high tide reaches. This, claim the protesters, is their right under the Rhode Island State Constitution.

Article 17, spells out in sometimes specific, sometimes difficult to interpret detail, the public’s right to access the shoreline:

“The people shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of fishery, and the privileges of the shore, to which they have been heretofore entitled under the charter and usages of this state, including but not limited to fishing from the shore, the gathering of seaweed, leaving the shore to swim in the sea and passage along the shore; and they shall be secure in their rights to the use and enjoyment of the natural resources of the state with due regard for the preservation of their values…”

In Article 16, the Constitution notes that these rights are to be “liberally construed” and “shall not be deemed to be a public use of private property.”

But where does that line, between the public’s right to the shore, and the private property owner’s right to exclude people from their property, actually reside?

“The ocean has now come forward, and that’s part of the problem,” said James Bedell of RISAC (Rhode Island Shoreline Access Coalition). “In 40 years none of these houses are going to be here. None of them. The beach is going to be over there someplace, and we want our rights to travel with the wet/dry line.”

James Bedell

Climate change is rapidly changing the shorelines in Rhode Island. A legal ruling from 1982 defined the area of constitutional access to be “mean high tide,” that is, “the average area where the tide reaches at its highest point at any given time a year.”

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What does that mean in the age of climate change and rising sea levels?

“God bless if you can go to the end point to where the average mean high tide line is over 18.6 years,” said Representative Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly) as quoted in the Independent.

To clarify the law, Keeley is pushing for a new statute from the Rhode Island General Assembly that would clarify that people have a Constitutional right of access to the beach ten feet from the wet-dry line. Ten feet is the average width of an ox cart, what the framers of the Rhode Island Constitution may have had in mind when they said that people could access the beach to collect seaweed for fertilizer. Keeley said that Filippi will be introducing the legislation to the General Assembly in January.

“Everyone here represents the majority,” said Regina DeAngelo, the first speaker at the rally. “The vast majority is in agreement with us. The minority, the very, very small minority, is trying to take away our access. Whether you live in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts New York, or anywhere in the United States, if you want to enjoy the beach, you must act to defend this right.”

“This has been an issue that’s been simmering in Rhode Island for decades and not getting the treatment that it really should,” said James Bedell. “Remember: it’s the high tide plus 10. It’s not owning someone’s property or being able to use an extended beach in front of property. We have a limited access, down the shore, to exercise our constitutional activities.”

“I’m not the only one who’s paid attention to these shoreline rights but I was arrested for exercising them,” said Scott Keeley. “The people of Rhode Island are not angry because I was arrested. The people of Rhode Island are angry because on June 9th at 1:00 o’clock we watched our rights taken away and they have not as yet been given back.”

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.

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