Public access to the coastal shoreline has long been a source of contention in Rhode Island, as well as the rest of New England, largely due to foggy language on how far private property is allowed to extend toward the water. This has led to frequent confrontations and lawsuits over who “owns” the shoreline and what right the public has to access the water and beaches.
All of this has led to the recent introduction of Rhode Island House Bill 8055, which holds that the public has the right to access the shore 10 feet above the “recognizable high tide line” on any sandy or rocky shoreline, but not above hard structures such as seawalls or other legally constructed shoreline infrastructure. The “recognizable high tide line” is defined in the bill as a boundary 10 feet landward “from the line or mark left upon tide 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.”
In 1982, a RI Supreme Court ruling established the mean-high-water mark as the boundary between private and public shore. However, as the new legislation points out, that mark “cannot be determined by the naked eye and requires special surveying expertise and equipment.”
Landowner groups vow to fight the bill in court should it pass.
The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, but is not yet scheduled for a hearing.