CHARLESTOWN — Officials from Charlestown and South Kingstown met Friday with Laura Miguel, enforcement supervisor for the state Coastal Resources Management Council, to discuss the ongoing issue of public beach access. The annual meeting, which takes place in early summer, is particularly timely this year following the recent arrest of a Charlestown resident on a beach in South Kingstown. 

The resident, Scott Keeley, was walking in shallow water, collecting seaweed, and had crossed from the beach in Charlestown into South Kingstown when a security guard hired by a group of beachfront homeowners warned him that he was trespassing. When Keeley asserted his right to be there under the Rhode Island Constitution, the guard notified South Kingstown police and an officer arrested him for trespassing. The charge was later dropped.

Keeley recalled the incident, which occurred on June 9. 

“They have a sign facing the town beach ... It implies that you’re not allowed to walk down the beach," he said. "Then they go just a little bit further there by having a security guard on the other side of that sign, further implying that you’re not allowed to cross that line.”

Keeley, accompanied by a friend, Matthew Glander, ignored the sign and began to gather seaweed, which he intended to use in his garden. The guard did not object to their presence, Keeley said, until he sat down near the water line.

“The South Kingstown police and the security guard and the homeowners have decided that sitting means trespassing,” he said. 

Keeley read the section of the Rhode Island Constitution pertaining to public access to the guard, who nevertheless maintained that Keeley was trespassing. The South Kingstown officer told Keeley that he would be arrested if he continued to sit on the sand. Keeley said he complied and stood up.

“The one thing I was sure I could do was continue walking along and picking up seaweed,” he said. “I bent over to pick up some seaweed, I had taken a step away from the officer. I was complying with his request by stepping away. I bent to pick up the seaweed. He understood that action to be delaying and not leaving and he said, ‘That’s it, you’re under arrest.’”

Keeley later conceded that he had intended to draw attention to the public access issue.

“I wasn’t making any more of a point than they were,” he said, referring to the security guard. “But yeah, I had a copy of the constitution with me.”

Article I, Section 17 of the Rhode Island Constitution gives everyone the right to walk, swim, fish and gather seaweed along the shore. It states:

“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.” 

Keeley isn’t the first Rhode Islander to slip a copy of the constitution into his beach bag. State Rep. Blake Filippi, R-Charlestown, has referred to copies of the constitution as a "must have" for the beach season.

“We have a right to really access our shoreline, to walk, swim, collect seaweed, congregate with our families, and I think what happened is an affront to our fundamental right under the constitution,” Filippi said.

Charlestown Police Chief Michael Paliotta said Friday's meeting with the CRMC included Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz and Parks and Recreation Director Vicky Hilton. 

Town Council President Virginia Lee noted that this year, Charlestown had also invited representatives from the South Kingstown Police Department.

“Mike, who’s been dealing with it for many, many years on the Charlestown side, and not arresting people, has arranged to help educate them and work with coastal enforcement for a more coordinated, respectful approach,” she said. 

Paliottta said he welcomed South Kingstown’s participation.

“After this thing happened on the property adjacent to Charlestown beach, I had a conversation with South Kingstown police and suggested, ‘Why don’t we get you in on some of these meetings and we’ll all sit around a table, since we share the property line right there where this contentious issue is happening, and we’ll all come to a consensus.’”

A moving target

One of the factors complicating beach access is confusion over the point on the beach up to which the public is entitled to walk. The public is permitted up to the mean high tide line, also known as the rack line, or seaweed line, but in addition to a lack of understanding as to where that actually is, Paliotta said the line itself is a moving target, exacerbated by erosion and sea level rise.

“Our stance is, because of the inability to establish that proper property line up and down the beach, that we will not make a trespass arrest for those types of situations, and that’s kind of our policy,” Paliotta said.

“The mean high water line, the mean high tide line, the rack line, the ox path: I’ve been to a lot of these trainings over the years and when you try to explain that to the average police officer on the street and try to have him enforce that stuff, you can have a room full of lawyers and they can't give you a straight answer on this.”

Filippi, a lawyer, called on the Rhode Island Supreme Court to clarify the mean high tide standard.

“The Supreme Court adopted a standard of the mean high tide over 18.6 years and the court said no one can be charged criminally unless they can be proven under reasonable doubt to know where the high tide line was,” he said. “I’m concerned about that standard in a time of beach erosion, because over 18.6 years, there’s going to be a lot of places where the average high tide over the period is in the water. I think, ultimately, our Supreme Court needs to adopt a different standard based on the other provisions in Section 17 that allow free passage. You can’t have free passage if the high tide line is out in the water.”

The Save The Bay organization, which supports public shoreline access, has documented public rights of way throughout Rhode Island. The group completed its initial survey in 2015 and released an update in 2018.

South Coast Keeper David Prescott said the Keeley incident had brought the public access issue back into the spotlight.

“I think this is great opportunity to educate everyone, residents, tourists the community, enforcement, about what their rights are as Rhode Island citizens,” he said. “ The fact that we can access the shoreline is a huge benefit to all of us as Rhode Island citizens.

Keeley is organizing an event on July 6 at Charlestown Beach to support the public’s right to access Rhode Island’s beaches.

“We’re going to meet at the Charlestown public beach and we’re going to walk and fish and pull our boats up and do very peaceful things along the shore,” he said. “We’re going to go up and down the shoreline …We don’t have to stay on the town beach. We’re going to exercise our rights to the Rhode Island shoreline. We’re not looking to cross into the dunes. We’re not looking to cross into people’s private property. We are going to exercise our constitutional rights.”

The event will begin at 10 a.m.

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