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

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“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.”

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 Steve Ahlquist 979 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade.Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.atomicsteve@gmail.com

4 Comments

  1. I am a middle class through-and-through Liberal. So please don’t trash me for saying this. But I think this article neglects a key point. The people who own the land on some of these sections of beach are actually paying property taxes as landowners. And the assessments on those properties are very high compared to our state averages. Look it up on any Town Assessor database – Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown, etc. they pay a LOT of taxes on the properties. And if you go to Town Hall at any of these towns, you’ll find that their property lines go all the way to the water. It’s all public record, see for yourself.

    Those taxes in turn support our schools, law enforcement, social programs, etc. Our state and local governments are already under enough stress. We need those tax revenues.

    I found it ironic that a protestor was holding a sign referencing “Golden Rule.” The original source of that quotation is the New Testament. Remember “Do unto others”? I own a modest home in Wickford. If people started parading around my front yard on weekends with picket signs, I wouldn’t like it. Would any of you? Do unto others, is right. You can’t have it both ways.

    This is an emotional issue for all of us, and I have a solution. Fortunately we are blessed with plenty of beautiful public beaches all over the state including Misquamicut, Charlestown Breachway, Roger Wheeler, and Scarborough. Funny thing, when I go to those beaches, there are three license plates from Connecticut, and two from Massachusetts, for every one from Rhode Island. How about we set a limit on out-of-state use of our beaches? That to me is a more constructive and just solution than stamping on the rights of our fellow property owners and taxpayers in Rhode Island.

    • No
      I live in Charlestown year round and pay property taxes. I purchase a resident beach tag each year. I am not going to go to Misquamicut beach to make these privileged jerks happy. I am going to go to Charlestown beach, right around the corner from me.
      I seriously doubt that they pay property tax right down to the water- that goes against the state constitution. If you pay taxes right down to the water it is because you live in North Kingstown which has very little in the wAy of sandy beaches. Your lawn may go right to the rocks before it drops to the water.

    • “you’ll find that their property lines go all the way to the water. It’s all public record, see for yourself.”

      The issue is that if the state constitution (or any other substantial law) indicates that their property lines can only go to the high-tide mark, then people should be able to walk there at any time the tide is not at a maximum. Or really, any time they’re willing to get their feet wet in the surf. I can sell you a deed which shows you owning things way offshore and international water, but even if that deed was registered, you wouldn’t own it because I never had the right to sell it. Right?

      This will of course not be great for the property owners over time. With rising water levels, they will simply have less and less property until the sea reclaims it in a storm. Great time to invest in property one house back from the beach, though. 😉

  2. it’s not the owners of the house. it’s the people that are renting them. all out of staters.tax money for the state of RHODE ISLAND.or your Lil path down the beach. Ya lost already.Sorry bout that. hey get on DEM every time you see them crabbing or have big bags of shellfish when they are coming back from the salt pond’s. crabbing is for residents only not out of staters.turn them in more money for the state haha well that won’t work either DEM drives by them all the time to hang out with the pretty girls at the beach parking lot That are collecting money.but they will arrest you for walking on the beach.Just a sad day about this. it’s all so relaxing down by the ocean just a shame

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