CHARLESTOWN — The Charlestown Town Council has asked Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero to draft a resolution asking the state legislature to clarify which part of the ocean shoreline is accessible to the general public.
Residents have been asking town officials to remove signs installed by homeowners declaring sections of the beach private, but as a coastal feature, the beach comes under the jurisdiction of the state Coastal Resources Management Council, which is also operating under the same vague legal guidelines.
The council's discussion this week followed a July 6 demonstration on adjoining Charlestown and South Kingstown beaches by advocates of public beach access as guaranteed in the Rhode Island Constitution. The demonstration was organized by Charlestown resident Scott Keeley after his arrest in June for gathering seaweed in the water off a South Kingstown beach.
Council Vice President Deborah Carney proposed that the council ask Ruggiero to draft a resolution supporting the amended version of H 7317, legislation introduced in 2006 but never voted on, that was intended to clarify the section of beach that is public.
“Recently, the public’s rights to access the shore have been called into question,” Carney said. “Part of the problem is the lack of clarity in where private property ends and where the public land begins. There needs to be a clear, easy to distinguish line.”
The state Constitution states that the public can walk, swim, fish or gather seaweed along the shore, but its reference to the mean high tide line as the uppermost limit is confusing and difficult to enforce. The proposed legislation would have specified a 10-foot strip of beach, described as the “salt water land boundary,” at the water line, which would be accessible to all.
Carney also proposed that the resolution, if passed by the Town Council, would be sent to members of the General Assembly and to the other 38 Rhode Island cities and towns.
But before the council even began discussing Carney’s resolution, Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz told members that the access problem might become even more contentious if clear public access boundaries are drawn.
“My concern is when you put these lines down, property owners are then going to want the town to enforce private property rights for trespassing," he said. "We don’t do that in beachfront areas. We don’t do that in other parts of town.”
Stankiewicz also noted that despite its jurisdiction over coastal features such as beaches, CRMC is seldom seen in Charlestown.
“While I think it’s a great idea for CRMC to have all this authority, they never come down,” he said. “When someone has a trespassing issue, CRMC has two enforcement officers for the entire state, so when enforcement comes, it falls upon the Charlestown Police Department.”
Carney said the intent of her proposal was to reaffirm the right of anyone traversing the shoreline to be there.
“Anyone within the state of Rhode Island will know that as long as they’re 10 feet from the water line, they are safe to fish, swim, walk, whatever,” she said. “I’m not implying that Charlestown has an issue. It’s because of an issue that happened in another town, but there’s really no clear law in place.”
Councillor Julie Carroccia said she favored a resolution.
“I don’t see any harm in supporting a resolution like this and showing our residents that we care about them and we care about their rights on the shoreline,” she said.
A sign declaring the South Kingstown beach private had been removed the day of the public access demonstration, but returned days later, along with a security guard hired by homeowners to keep people off that section of beach. Another sign, recently removed, was on the Charlestown beach warning people to keep away from a section near the beach entrance.
CRMC spokeswoman Laura Dwyer said that the ever-changing beach signage situation was difficult, if not impossible, to regulate.
“Speaking about South Kingstown, Charlestown beaches, if there is a property owner who has a permit for a sign, usually the placement is wrong, so we have to direct them to put it in the right place or it’s too far seaward and we have to say ‘You need to move it back such and such feet so it’s at the end of the coastal feature or on the dune,’” she said. “And then we have the un - permitted signage and honestly, there’s so much of this going on during any given summer, it is completely overwhelming for our two enforcement staff.”
Resident Jane Glander told the council that the signs were intimidating to beachgoers.
“I think it’s important that the signs be taken down, that are on the Charlestown side also, because of the chilling effect for people who come onto the beach and see those signs,” she said. “They don’t think that they have the right to walk on that shoreline, so I think it’s important that we mandate that the signs be taken down … Homeowners are getting very, very aggressive and I don’t know that the police are actually explaining to the homeowners that they can’t be aggressive.”
Dwyer said the council was required to follow a process in citing violators and that the process sometimes takes longer than people believe it should.
“We hear complaints from people who don’t understand why it can’t be done faster,” she said. “We have to tell them to remove the sign and we have to give them time to do it, and usually they say, ‘Oh, can I have more time?’ This is us trying to work with people and not have it be confrontational all the time, because I think there’s enough confrontation in general with this whole topic.”
Signage enforcement, Dwyer added, was just one aspect of the council’s work.
“For folks to assume that in the summer we put everything aside and say ‘Now we’re just dealing with beach signage that’s illegal’ is kind of silly,” she said.
Council President Virginia Lee said she wanted the state to look at the public access issue in the context of sea level rise.
“It’s time to take a look at this again, and a line in the sand isn’t going to work because sea level rise is moving the line inland,” she said.
The council asked Ruggiero to prepare a resolution asking the legislature to clarify and guarantee public access to the shoreline. The resolution will be considered at the council's Aug. 13 meeting.