2014-01-09 / Editorial

Viewpoint

Rome’s great idea: Public access to the shoreline
By Mary Jo Diem

Rhode Island has one of the most densely populated coastal zones in the country, with about 90 percent of the state’s residents living within a 20-minute drive of the coastline. This makes public access an important economic and recreational resource. Rhode Island did have a great idea in guaranteeing public access to the shore. However, it is not the originator of the idea.

The ancient Romans were probably the first to recognize the importance of public access to the shoreline.

“By the law of nature these things are common to all mankind – the air, running water, the sea, and the shore of the sea. No one therefore is forbidden to approach the seashore, provided that he respects habitations, monuments and buildings.”

Through the ages, Rome’s great idea has become Rhode Island’s, and it is guaranteed in the Rhode Island Colony Charter and the Rhode Island Constitution.

“Public access to the shore” is a general term used to describe the ways the public may legally have both physical and visual access to coastal areas and resources through public rights-of-way. A public right-of-way is a parcel of land where the public has a right to pass on foot, or if appropriate, by vehicle, in order to access the tidal waters of Rhode Island. Jamestown has a total of 27 rights-ofway: 13 public, 12 unresolved and two under review.

The Coastal Resources Management Council has been entrusted with the responsibility to protect this valuable resource. The natural resource is, after all, the reason why many of us have chosen to live in Rhode Island. The council’s mission is to “preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, restore the coastal resources of the state.” Its goal is to establish one right-ofway per every mile of shoreline. With 220 sites designated as public, and with 420 miles of Rhode Island shoreline, the CRMC is better than halfway to reaching its goal.

Once a site has been designated as a public right-of-way, the coastal council prohibits any activities that would obstruct the public’s use of the site. The council also pursues legal actions against individuals who block or impede the public’s access to a designated right-ofway. In this manner, the CRMC protects and preserves these sites for public use.

This past summer, I walked each of the public rights-of-way in Jamestown. With the exception of the two public beaches, this was a rather frustrating and challenging experience. It was soon obvious that only a couple of the rights–ofway were clearly marked. Many were overgrown and impassable. Even more surprising was that none of the rights-of-way were welcoming or inviting to the public. Some of them were even being encroached upon or used for vehicle storage by the adjoining property owners. Why have we allowed this valuable resource to decline in Jamestown?

There are many ways we can help safeguard public access to our shoreline. These include cleaning up public access sites, participating in beach cleanups, participating in the state’s Adopt-a-Spot program, and reporting the unlawful blockage or encroachment of any public right-of-way to the coastal council. To help ensure these types of efforts occur, a group of concerned citizens of Jamestown is organizing a volunteer group called Friends of Jamestown Rights-of-Way. We will work with the CRMC and the town of Jamestown. This will enable us to apply for grants to help fund the work. If you are interested in the effort, feel free to contact me at carpediemsci@comcast.net.

It stands to reason that if we make many of the rights-of-way welcoming to physical and visual access, the impact on any single right-of-way and adjacent properties will be minimized. This will also help alleviate parking issues as the right-of-way will be so near neighborhoods that people will be able to walk to them. Imagine that: neighborhood access to our shoreline.

The author has lived in Jamestown with her husband for five years. She became a full-time resident and registered voter in April 2013. She is a past vice president and current member of the Jamestown Shores Association.

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