Supreme Court affirms decision in Misquamicut beach-access case

Supreme Court affirms decision in Misquamicut beach-access case

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — The state Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the owners of beach-front property along a 2-mile stretch of Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut, finding the beach area is private except for the area below the mean high-tide mark.

The unanimous decision, which was released Tuesday morning, affirms the earlier decision of Superior Court Judge Brian Stern. State Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office filed a lawsuit against the property owners in October of 2012, saying a 1909 subdivision map, or plat, illustrated the intent of the then-owners to dedicate the entire beach area as being open to the public. The disputed area stretches from the Westerly Town Beach to the Weekapaug breachway.

Stern ruled the map and related evidence did not show an intent to dedicate the beach to the public. The Supreme Court agreed with Stern and his reasoning.

“Over 100 years ago, five intrepid longtime ‘South County’ property owners set out to create a residential area by the sea. It is doubtful that they could have imagined the present litigation. In gleaning their intent, the trial justice [Stern] did not err in finding that the 1909 plat and indenture did not reveal manifest intent to dedicate the over two-mile stretch of beach in Misquamicut to the public,” Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia wrote.

The current property owners disagreed with the state’s reading of the map, saying the map and property deeds proved they owned the beach. The area has been the location of frequent skirmishes involving members of the public who claimed the beach was open to them and property owners who filed trespassing complaints, put up signs and fences, and shooed people away. William Landry, the lawyer who represented the property owners, said his clients are now free to enjoy their property.

“It means this area is private property that is not open to the public. It will be easier for them to protect their property from trespass and preserves the value of their property,” Landry said.

In the years leading up to the case and while it was pending, Westerly police were hesitant to get involved with complaints emanating from the disputed area. Landry said he hopes that changes.

“I would hope and expect the town would be willing to protect this private property to the same extent it protects other private property from trespass,” Landry said.

The high court’s decision will likely end the long-running dispute.

“Among all the things we hold dear as Rhode Islanders, unfettered access to our shoreline is among the highest. We initiated the lawsuit to end a long-standing dispute over the public’s right to use and enjoy the two-mile stretch of beach along the Misquamicut coastline. Although we are disappointed in the opinion, it was the right decision to bring the matter before the court to determine the intent of the original landowners more than 100 years ago,” Kilmartin said in a statement after the court’s decision was released.

The dispute involved property that had been handed down through generations.

“In many cases these were the children and grandchildren of previous owners who had certain expectations based on their deeds,” Landry said. “This was a very difficult thing for some of these families to end up involved in this lawsuit. Not everybody who owns property in Misquamicut is a wealthy person. Many of them rent their places out and are only there a few weeks each summer. This was an extraordinary burden for them,” Landry said.

Part of the state’s appeal to the state Supreme Court included a claim that Stern had ruled rights of way leading from Atlantic Avenue ended at the far landward portion of the beach, which would have eliminated the public’s ability to access the area below the mean high-water mark. The area below the mark is established and protected as public land by the state Constitution. The Supreme Court disagreed with the state’s interpretation of Stern’s ruling, saying his discussion of the rights of way was incidental and not controlling.

“This case is unique to the beach area in question and in no way alters the long-held constitutional guarantee that everyone has access to the shore. Further, it restored and upheld the rights of way to the ocean that had been called into question by the trial court,” Kilmartin said in his statement.

Kilmartin expressed gratitude to Save the Bay, the Surfrider Foundation, Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, Clean Ocean Access, and Friends of the Waterfront Inc., which joined the case in support of the state’s position.

Coincidentally, a large portion of the Westerly Town Council’s meeting on Monday involved a discussion of beach access, including whether the area in the case was public or private. Owners of property in the area asked whether the town would help to keep people off of their property. Councilors replied that the town’s approach depended on the Supreme Court’s decision.


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