CHARLESTOWN — A demonstration advocating public beach access attracted about 200 people Saturday morning to the shoreline straddling Charlestown and South Kingstown. Charlestown resident Tim Murphy sat on a picnic table at the Charlestown Town Beach, where the group assembled, and lamented the increasing privatization of the shoreline.
“It’s a God-given right,” he said, referring to shoreline access. “ Just because you buy a house doesn’t mean you own the beach.”
Organizer Scott Keeley, who was recently arrested for gathering seaweed in the water near the shore, was handing out signs and copies of the Rhode Island Constitution, which guarantees public access to the shoreline.
“We’ve got constitutions on a postcard,” he said. “The back side tells you how to find your state legislator and give them a call, and a few things you might want to say to them.”
On June 9, Keeley was walking in shallow water, collecting seaweed, and had crossed from the beach in Charlestown beach into South Kingstown when a security guard hired by a group of beachfront homeowners warned him that he was trespassing. When Keeley asserted his constitutional right to be there, the guard notified South Kingstown police and an officer arrested him for trespassing. The charge was later dropped.
The sign declaring that section of beach private had been removed on Saturday, and the security guard was nowhere to be seen. But over on the Charlestown side, a new sign stating that the beach was private had popped up just past the entrance to the town beach.
Town Council President Virginia Lee, who is well-versed in public access issues and wrote a 1993 report on public shoreline access, was standing near the new sign.
“I’m a proponent of public access,” she said. “We have a limited shoreline, we have many, many people who want access to the sea, and it’s public trust lands.”
There is considerable confusion as to where on the beach the public can go. The commonly used “mean high tide line” and “seaweed line” terms are vague and changeable, give the rate of sea level rise.
Public access advocates are calling on the Rhode Island General Assembly to clarify the section of the shoreline to which the public has access by passing a measure defining it “high tide plus 10.”
Longtime shoreline access advocate Jim Bedell explained that the proposed high tide plus 10 legislation would measure the public section of the shoreline from the water to 10 feet onto the beach.
“The constitution has nothing about tide in it,” Bedell said. “We have legislation at the Statehouse already, the High Tide Plus 10 bill. Remember, it’s the high tide plus 10.”
Council Vice President Deborah Carney said she would introduce the proposed legislation at Monday’s Town Council meeting.
“I have an item on the agenda for Monday night’s Town Council meeting to discuss, specifically, shoreline access with copies of a House bill that was introduced in 2006,” she said. “There was another version that was introduced with text amendments which clarified that the public would have access 10 feet above where the wet sand is.”
The 2006 bill was H7317.
The group began walking down the beach, but only a couple of people ventured into the water. There were no police officers from either town in evidence, since both departments had said they would keep a low profile unless they were needed.
When the demonstrators crossed into South Kingstown, they were met by three beachfront homeowners. The men, who would not provide their names, argued that they paid taxes for property that extended all the way down to the water, and therefore, the beach was private. Nevertheless, they said they did not harass beachgoers for walking or swimming in the water.
“No one has ever stopped anyone from walking on the beach, fishing, driving their cars, which is illegal in South Kingstown,” one man said. “But, you can’t set up camp in somebody’s yard.”
“Wait a minute," a demonstrator said. “Where’s your property line? Show us your property line.”
“My deed says to the Atlantic ocean,” the homeowner replied. “What you need to do is go to the Town Hall and ask them to reduce my taxes. You can’t set up in somebody’s yard. It’s not right. We pay a lot of money to buy these houses to have our private beach, why should everybody come and sit on our private beach?”
The homeowners and the access advocates were able to find one thing they could all agree on: The law needs clarification.
"I think someone needs to clarify it for everyone who’s here, because it’s creating problems,” one of the homeowners said.
Keeley’s partner, Regina DeAngelo, said Rhode Islanders needed to continue to assert their constitutional right to the shoreline, or risk losing it altogether.
“When we enjoy our shoreline, we are not trespassing,” she said. “We are exercising our constitutional right to enjoy the shoreline. No one, not even a private landowner with a hired guard, can take that away from us.”