Legislature passes bill to establish public access

The wrack line Tuesday afternoon at Potter Cove at low tide.

The wrack line Tuesday afternoon at Potter Cove at low tide.

A bill that would establish a practical, recognizable boundary to identify public access to the shoreline has passed the state legislature.

The law will take effect immediately upon Gov. Dan McKee’s signature.

The bill sets the boundary at 10 feet landward from the recognizable high-tide line, also known as the “wrack line,” which is recognizable by a line of seaweed and scum deposited where the tide reaches its highest point. In places where there are multiple wrack lines, the one closest to the water will be where 10 feet is measured. Where there is no visible wrack line, the 10 feet is to be measured from the wet line on the sand or rocks.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Mark McKenney and Rep. Terri Cortvriend. Jamestown’s delegation, Sen. Dawn Euer and Rep. Alex Finkelman, support the bill. Euer co-sponsored the Senate version.

“Public shoreline rights have long been cherished by Rhode Islanders, which is why they were guaranteed in our state constitution,”

Cortvriend said. “But it’s impossible to protect that right when no one can tell where the public shoreline ends. The lack of a clear definition has caused problems in our state for decades.”

The legislation also exempts owners of shoreline property from liability for the public’s activities in that area. It also recognizes that in some waterfront places, such as rocky cliffs and seawalls, there is no passable area for the public to access.

The right to access the shoreline was written into the state constitution when it was adopted in 1843, and further delineated after the 1986 constitutional convention.

Exactly where the public shoreline ends and private property begins, however, has been a debated issue that has intensified with development of the shoreline in recent years.

A 1982 case in the Rhode Island Supreme Court established the boundary of the public’s shore access at the mean high-tide line, defined as the average of high tides over an 18.6-year cycle, which continually changes with the shifting sands of the coast. Although McKenney said the court was “well intentioned,” the decision is not practical because the line changes with “alarming frequency.”