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A group of concerned citizens head out for an informational walking tour from beach near the Weekapaug Breachway on Wednesday afternoon, September 21, 2022. The walk organized by Rhode Island Sea Grant, visited a few Westerly shoreline access points along Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut. Casey Tremper of Clean Ocean Access, Leah Feldman of the Coastal Resources Management Council, RI State Representative Terri Cortvriend, and Janet Freedman of the URI Coastal Institute discussed with a score of concerned citizens shoreline access issues, including proposed legislation regarding lateral access that would make the debris line the indicator for where the public is allowed to traverse the beach. Harold Hanka, Special to the Sun

WESTERLY — Advocates hoping to preserve or expand public access to Rhode Island’s coastal waters heard Wednesday from legislators who have introduced a bill they say will better define where people have a right to use the state’s shores.

State Sen. Victoria Gu, (D-Dist. 38, Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown) hosted a forum at Westerly Town Hall that covered both the efforts in the General Assembly to pass legislation to increase public access to the shore as well as the Coastal Resources Management Council’s role in determining public rights of way.

“All the actions of people in this room have helped elevate the issue to near the top of the agenda for the House and the Senate,” Gu, a first-term lawmaker, said.

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives on Jan. 19 would give the public access to 6 feet of beach from a recognizable high tide line along the state’s coast.

State Reps. Brian Patrick Kennedy (D-Dist.38, Hopkinton, Westerly) and Tina Spears (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, South Kingstown, New Shoreham) are two of the 10 sponsors of the bill, and both were at Wednesday’s forum.

The bill, H-5174, defines what’s called a “recognizable high tide line,” noted as a line or mark left on “tidal flats, beaches, or along shore objects that indicates the intersection of the land with the water’s surface level at the maximum height reached by a rising tide.”

The public would have the expectation of access on a strip of sand six feet landward from that line, according to the bill.

“The language in that legislation is what we’re seeking to pass that will now set that definition in place,” Kennedy said.

But the bill also has a provision that stops the public from going beyond the vegetation line and into a homeowner’s property, “even if the high tide is at their doorstep,” Gu said. Such a scenario will occur with greater frequency because of sea level rise, she said.

“Eventually the amount of land we have that is public and usable will shrink over time,” she said.

Gu said a companion bill should be introduced in the Senate soon.

Currently, the public’s right to the shore is determined by the mean high water line, an elevation calculated from the average of all the high tides in Rhode Island over a 19-year period.

The line can change on a daily basis, leading to confusion and inconsistencies.

“For instance,” the proposed bill says, “two years of near weekly surveyed beach transects in the town of Charlestown revealed that the position of the MHW line migrated back and forth across a 125-foot swath of the beach profile.”

As part of the forum, Gu invited CRMC staff to explain the state’s long history of public rights to the shoreline, as well as several methods the agency uses to determine a public right of way.

It’s a timely discussion, especially in Westerly, where last month the Town Council backed a resolution supporting the CRMC’s role in determining if the Spring Avenue Extension will be recognized as a public right of way to the shore. That decision is still pending.

The town has wrestled with the Spray Rock Road or Spring Avenue right of way for more than 14 years. The matter was before the CRMC on Tuesday, Westerly Town Council member Joy Cordio said. It could be heard and decided on within the first half of this year, she said.

“It’s out of our hands right now. We do have two other rights of way waiting to be heard at CRMC, that is the sand trail and Water’s Edge Road,” she said.

Westerly also has a harbor management plan waiting for approval, and Cordio said the town’s yet to be formed Charter Review Commission will address its lack of a Harbor Management Commission this year.

“I will personally recommend that that be reinstated,” she said.

Gu also spoke about another “exciting” bill introduced by Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Cranston, Warwick) to identify rights of way to water bodies such as rivers that empty into the bays or ocean.

She also wants to look at signage guidelines to regulate what she said are “misleading” signs next to public rights of way that say the land is private property for use only by residents and their guests. Gu showed several photos she said she took in Charlestown of such signs.

“It’s technically on private property, on a homeowner’s parcel of land, but it’s next to a right of way where it seems like it’s discouraging people from using the right of way,” she said.

Another area of advocacy for Gu in the current session, she said, will be efforts to provide additional funding to CRMC for enforcement of signage regulations.

“Say one of us drafts a bill giving the CRMC the ability to enforce the signage,” she said. “They also need to have the staffing and resources to do that.”

Gu urged attendees to get involved in the process by contacting not only their own legislators, but to have family or acquaintances in other parts of the state do likewise.

“Look around your personal networks,” she said. “We need representatives and senators up north to be hearing it from their constituents, too.”

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