New R.I. shore access law, new shore access disputes this summer

The Boston Globe

“You can do whatever you would normally do on the beach in that 10-foot window,” said Westerly Town Manager Shawn Lacey, part of a group of town officials who met with state regulators to discuss the law.

Laurie Bates poses for a photo on the beach in front of her home on Ocean Avenue on the eastern end of East Matunuck Beach in Jerusalem, Narragansett, R.I., on August 9. Bates has expressed frustration over the makeshift barrier her neighbor has created to block off their portion of the beach, at left, and considers it an eyesore and unnecessary.
Laurie Bates poses for a photo on the beach in front of her home on Ocean Avenue on the eastern end of East Matunuck Beach in Jerusalem, Narragansett, R.I., on August 9. Bates has expressed frustration over the makeshift barrier her neighbor has created to block off their portion of the beach, at left, and considers it an eyesore and unnecessary. MATTHEW HEALEY FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

NARRAGANSETT — The Jerusalem-East Matunuck area is sometimes called a hidden JEM, and it’s easy to see why: beautiful beach, bright sunshine, views of the ferry heading out of Galilee.

But one particular section of beach is, according to some neighbors, tarnishing the JEM. And it has a nickname, too, although this one can’t be printed in a family newspaper. The situation began about a month or so ago, when neighbors say a property owner set up a row of chairs, sticks, and other things to mark off a rectangular portion of the beach in front of a house on Succotash Road as private. Someone responded by scrawling on one of the chairs: “Welcome to [Anatomical Insult To Describe Mean Person] Beach. Do not enter!”

Laurie Bates and Rex Santerre can see [Anatomical Insult To Describe Mean Person] Beach from their house next door. They’re not the ones who set up the beach chairs, or who scrawled the vulgarity on them. But they don’t like the chair barrier, either. Like others in the area, they consider it unsightly and unneighborly.

“This has just put a cloud over the neighborhood,” said Bates, a retired economics professor whose house is called Equilibrium and whose dog is named Pax.

Neither balance nor peace has been the order of the day in some cases after a new law improving the public’s right to access the shore passed in Rhode Island. As any economics professor could tell you, it’s not clear whether correlation equals causation, and the plural of anecdote is not data. It’s hard to say whether there are more of these sorts of shoreline issues, more complaints about them, more attention, or some combination.

What’s certainly the case, though, is that towns and state regulators are working through a changed landscape along the shore, all during the most popular time of year to get there and the most common time of year to argue about it. The resulting disputes, like a certain beach’s nickname, haven’t always been suitable to print in a family newspaper. But they are getting resolved, bit by bit — often in favor of more access, unless a federal lawsuit gets in the way.

The new law gives people the right to access the shore if they are no more than 10 feet above the recognizable high tide line.

Issues that have come up since its passage this summer have varied, but have sometimes involved property owners setting up new obstacles at or near the new 10-foot boundary. The chairs at the beach next to Bates’ house didn’t appear to be blocking the new public-access zone, at least where the tide was on a recent weekday. A few days after the Globe’s visit, the chairs had been moved up closer to the dunes, Bates said.

In other cases, signage and barriers have unambiguously sought to block the sort of access that the law allows. That includes legacy signs like, “private beach to wet sand,” which isn’t the case anymore under the law (and never was, some would argue).

And finally, some beachgoers have gotten into arguments with property owners about what the law actually means.

For example, in Westerly recently, Dunns Corners resident Dan Roy has tried to take advantage of the new law by going to the Weekapaug Fire District’s Fenway Beach. A security guard told him on multiple visits, including on a recent Friday, that he wasn’t allowed to be there. Even if he was within 10 feet of the recognizable high tide line, the new law was for transiting the shore, not sticking around, Roy said the guard told him.

Roy begged to differ. The state’s Constitution enshrines rights including, but not limited to, passage, collecting seaweed, fishing, and swimming. On Friday, Roy himself called police, and they sided with him. He could stay. What really surprised him, Roy said, was that a security guard in a state-created fire district was telling him otherwise.

“That’s really not right,” Roy said.

The Weekapaug Fire District didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Roy later contacted Westerly Town Manager Shawn Lacey. Lacey was part of a group of South County town officials who met with the state Coastal Resources Management Council recently to discuss how the new law should be interpreted and enforced. The upshot: People can indeed put down a towel and a chair, or even toss around a frisbee, if they’re under the 10-foot boundary line.

“You can do whatever you would normally do on the beach in that 10-foot window,” Lacey said in an interview.

CRMC spokeswoman Laura Dwyer concurred that it’s not merely a law allowing for passage. People can set down a towel and chair and stay. In part that’s because the law itself says it is to be “liberally construed,” Dwyer said.

The law itself doesn’t allow people to go on lawns or use privately owned cabanas and beach chairs. And in general, everyone should try to be courteous and respectful as people work their way through the new law, Dwyer said. CRMC is working on educating the public about the new law, an effort that’s still under development.

“The goal is to continue this conversation with all groups,” Dwyer said.

Other issues have come up in North Kingstown, where signs off the town beach — within the new 10-foot public access zone — were installed for a time, and at Green Hill Beach in South Kingstown, where someone reportedly put up a sign right on the wrack line using the Coast Guard emblem.

False signage has always been a problem, but it seems to be getting extra attention now — probably because the problem itself is growing and awareness of it is growing, too, said Cate Brown, a shore access advocate whose friend saw the sign in South Kingstown.

Property owners have “really been trying to double down on putting their line in the sand,” Brown said.

Elsewhere, police have raised the theory that the new law is going to lead to issues while everyone figures out what it means. In one well publicized incident in Middletown, a would-be visitor to the shore walked onto a man’s lawn after being blocked by bushes from getting to the end of a public access path. Cheyne Cousens then got into a profanity-laced argument with the property owner who tried to shoo him off the lawn (lawns aren’t included in the new horizontal public access zone). The resulting video Cousens took went viral on TikTok.

Body camera footage captured even more angles than the TikTok video.

“Unfortunately, until people better understand the new legislation, we’re going to have issues with it,” the officer told the owner in the body camera footage.

Cousens was charged with misdemeanor trespassing. Cousens said he was simply confused about where the shore access was, but said he could have handled the situation better. The incident has led to renewed attention on why the actual public path next to the property is blocked.

In addition to the trespassing case against Cousens, shore access disputes will play out in civil court, too, as private property owners sue to block it. A hearing is set for Sept. 6 on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Meanwhile shore access advocates are planning another appearance of an airplane banner making their case, part of a back-and-forth aerial campaign with private property owners who got their own banner. The latest banner is expected to say: “The RI Shore Is Still Not Private.”

One of the places this plane might be visible from is Equilibrium, Bates’ house on East Matunuck Beach.

The name of the home may celebrate balance, but even Bates and Santerre — also a retired economics professor — don’t agree completely on the new shore access law. Bates said in an interview that “property is theft” and that the beach is a public good; Santerre said in a separate interview that he didn’t think it was right to take private property without compensation.

These married economics professors do agree on other shoreline things. Neither of them mind when people set up on the beach in front of their house. And they agree that the beach chair-turned fence next door had no place in the JEM.

“Why can’t we all enjoy the beach on a nice, sunny day?” Bates said.

Originally posted 2023-08-19 09:00:00.