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Article I, Section 17 of the Rhode Island Constitution states that:
The public shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of fishery, and the privileges of the shore, to which they have been heretofore entitled under the charter and usages of this State.
This has been interpreted to mean that lateral access on all beaches is guaranteed by the State constitution. Rhode Island is the only state to specifically outline four shoreline rights -- fishing, gathering seaweed, swimming access via the shore and passage along the sea. Freedom of access to coastal recreational spots in "the Ocean State" is of primary concern to the public and their officials.
Traditionally the "seaweed line" or "wrack line" has been interpreted as the boundary between private property and public trust lands. On wave-dominated shorelines, the position of the "seaweed line", or the last high tide swash line (LHTS) is dependent on the wave climate as much or more than the tidal phase. Tide-coordinated aerial surveys and in-field delineation of the water line in shoreline mapping surveys have reinforced the importance of the concept of including wave dynamics in demarcating an interpreted mean high water (MHW) line.
Because the right to access the water is written into the constitution, Rhode Island courts normally decide against adjacent property owners when there's a question of whether a particular site is open to the public. The CRMC also publishes a guide, available for free on its Website, that allows citizens to designate their own right of way. According to the guide, a right of way can be established by six different methods: Town-recognized roads, highways, paper streets, public usage or deed to the public, uninterrupted usage by the public over time, and well-used paths more than 10 years old. Also see page 80 of Public Access to the Rhode Island Coast.
The right of way process is normally initiated by the town, not the CRMC itself. For example, a town can nominate certain areas for the CRMC to investigate. At this point, the CRMC visually inspects the area, and also examines any evidence provided to it by the town — land evidence records, deeds, tax assessor records and court decisions. After nomination and discovery, the potential right of way is assigned to a CRMC subcommittee, and a public hearing is held in the town. If the subcommittee approves the right of way, it is referred to the full council for ratification. If there are no appeals, or if appeals have been exhausted, then the decision is recorded in the town's land evidence records and filed with the Secretary of State's office.
In 1979, a group of people were arrested in Westerly, RI during a beach cleanup. The individuals were clearly seaward of the LHTS line but were landward of a staked line that the littoral property owner claimed marked mean high water. The staked line was under water at the time of arrest. In the ensuing case, State v. Ibbison, 448 A.2d 728 (1982), the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the boundary between private property and public trust lands was the mean high tide line (MHW) defined as the intersection of the plane of mean high water with the shore. The plane of mean high tide was defined as the average of all high water elevations observed over an 18.6-year period or Tidal Epoch.
CRMC staff believes that the Ibbison ruling failed to consider all factors that influence the movement of water to the shore. Long term beach profile data demonstrates that the MHW line is not the appropriate measure for determining the boundary between public trust lands and private property on the wave-dominated shorelines of Rhode Island. Based on measurements of the beach profile since 1977 at Cha-EZ in Charleston, RI, the LHTS line is never seaward of the MHW line. At the Cha-EZ profile, the MHW line averaged 19-20 meters seaward of the LHTS lines. This measure is probably typical for the RI south shore. Using this measure (MHW), the shoreline privileges that are guaranteed in the RI State Constitution would be limited to only a few hours a day. Also see What Do You Mean by Mean High Tide? The Public Trust Doctrine in Rhode Island
The Cliff Walk Commission in Newport attempted to re-institute a dormant law that forbade access to the famous Ruggles Avenue surf break along the picturesque Cliff Walk, a long-time public recreational area. Not only is this a popular place for surfers, but also for swimmers, fishermen, sightseers, and joggers. Organized activism by the Rhode Island Surfrider Chapter and local residents at Newport City Council meetings resulted in this unconstitutional regulation being stricken from the record, proving that there is "power in teamwork and power in numbers."
A coastal right-of-way (ROW) and parking dispute in the Town of Barrington was recently resolved in favor of fishermen and others who had long used the CRMC-designated Daunis ROW near Nyatt Point. According to the Providence Journal article, dated August 10, 2004, Judge Procaccini ruled in State of Rhode Island, Providence, SC., Superior Court, Cecil Sartor, et. als. vs. Town of Barrington. C.A. NO.: 03-3985 : “The Parcel is a right-of-way that is intended to accommodate the public at-large and not merely abutters for the property or those in walking distance. In such a case, automobile access is necessary and reasonable.”
A bad surveying job erroneously landed a nearly 2-million dollar new home on private property that has been made available for public use by the Nulman family, at Rose Nulman Park in Narragansett, Rhode Island. The oceanside Rose Nulman Park, which is located to the north of the Point Judith lighthouse (on the west side of the entrance to Narragansett Bay), affords an important point of public access to the beach and ocean in an area that is otherwise surrounded by cliffs and private property. The owner of the offending property was ordered to move or demolish his house from the Nulman property; he appealed this decision. The Surfrider Foundation Rhode Island Chapter intervened, led by the generous support of Attorney Brian Wagner, by joining the suit as amicus in late 2013 to support continued public beach access and the Nulman family. On June 13, 2014, the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued its opinion in favor of the Nulmans, affirming the lower court's decision, calling for the offending structure to be demolished or removed in an appropriate timeframe. The Court cited its gratitude for Brian's brief in a footnote reading, "This Court is indebted to amicus curiae the Surfrider Foundation for its eloquent and helpful brief." Had the Court sided with the private property owner in this case, very bad precedent would have been set for parklands and public ocean access ways in Rhode Island. Such a ruling could have encouraged other developers to build on public property without permission and then later try to get "after the fact" permission in court.
Information on land acquisition programs in Rhode Island is available via the RIDEM Division of Planning and Development Website. This office operates to define, assess, develop plans, and acquire land, in a manner consistent with the Department's responsibility to provide recreational lands and save environmentally sensitive open space for future generations. This office also coordinates land acquisition with other state, federal and nonprofit land acquisition programs, following state regulations for the acquisition of property, and develops funding sources for these acquisitions. The annual review and maintenance of all leases on DEM property is also performed by the Division of Planning and Development.
The Division of Planning and Development's Land Acquisition Database. Here, among other things, you can find a summary of land acquisition from 1954 through 2002. In 2002, the most recent record in the database, Rhode Island spent over $10.8 million and acquired approximately 1,545 acres of land.
According to Pogue P. and Lee V., 1999, "Providing Public Access to the Shore: The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs," Coastal Management 27:219-237, the amount of publicly owned shoreline in Rhode Island is unknown. This document identifies 530 public access sites. This corresponds to more than one public access site for every mile of shoreline. Note the discrepancy between this number and the much lower numbers referenced in the paragraphs below.
The 2004 guide Public Access to the Rhode Island Coast is now available online through the CRMC Website. This 84-page document is a guide to parks, wildlife refuges, beaches, fishing sites, boat ramps, pathways, and views along the Rhode Island coast.
Rhode Island Sea Grant has a nice Website that provides information on public access. Their Daytripper's Guide to Rhode Island includes listings for coastal areas and natural places throughout the state from the full text of the guidebook Public Access to the Rhode Island Coast mentioned above. Pdf maps in the Daytripper's Guide will help you locate 344 popular pubic access sites to coastal activities such as fishing, picnicking, wildlife viewing, and even surfing.
Sea Grant is planning to create an internet site with GIS coverage of the entire state's access points. The site will include photos and a paragraph explanation for each site.
Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC's) Designation of Public Right-of-Ways to the Tidal Areas of the State, Progress Report for July 2008 through June 2009 can be viewed online. This is a list (by town) of public, nonpublic, and unresolved access points, as well as those that were under appeal at the time of publication. This document identifies 224 public rights-of-way and states: "The goal of the CRMC is to designate at least one public right-of-way for each mile of shoreline. With 224 sites designated as public, and with 420 miles of Rhode Island shoreline, the CRMC is better than half-way to reaching its goal."
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), Division of State Parks and Recreation Website provides information on 7 beaches: Charleston Breachway, East Beach, East Mantanuk State Beach, Misquamicut State Beach, Salty Brine State Beach, Scarborough North and South Beaches, and Roger W. Wheeler State Beach.
You can also find information on Rhode Island beaches here, here, and here.
In April 2011 RIDEM announced that they would be holding hearings on proposed increases to State Beach fees. DEM is proposing, for instance, to increase daily beach parking fees for residents from $6 to $10 on weekdays and from $7 to $14 on weekends and holidays. Non-resident beach parking fees would increase from $12 to $20 on weekdays and from $14 to $28 on weekends and holidays. Season passes would increase from $30 to $60 for residents and from $60 to $120 for non-residents. The fees are for parking only; there is no cost for anyone to walk onto a state beach.
Other sources of information on public access in Rhode Island include:
- Rhode Island Water Trails Guide, S. Adam Curtis, Stacey Greene, and Lillian Shuey. 1999. Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Division of Planning and Development. From Westerly to Little Compton (as well as Block Island), this guide offers detailed maps and information on access, amenities, and safety. It is available to the public from DEM and outdoor recreation stores.
- A Guide to Rhode Island's Natural Places, Elizabeth Gibbs, Tony Corey, Malia Schwartz, Deborah Grossman-Garber, Carole Jaworski, and Margaret Bucheit. 1995. Rhode Island Sea Grant, University of Rhode Island. Packed with information about Rhode Island's natural areas and natural history, and beautifully illustrated. It is available to the public from Rhode Island Sea Grant and outdoor recreation stores. Also see this map, with the same title.
Beach Attendance Records
Information on beach attendance in Rhode Island was not readily available, except for the statement quoted below that "Narragansett Bay's public beaches host nearly 4 million visitors throughout an average year." Beach attendance information may be available by contacting DEM's Division of State Parks and Recreation at the phone number or email address shown below.
Economic Evaluation of Beaches
Rhode Island's Section 305 (b) State of the State's Waters report notes the following:
Benefits from improvements in water quality and water resources can be inferred from a recent state Travel and Tourism Research Report (Volume 18, Number 1, May 2001) generated by the University of Rhode Island for the Department of Economic Development. This report indicated that the number of visitors to Rhode Island in recent years increased at a rate that is nearly double the national average. Narragansett Bay's public beaches host nearly 4 million visitors throughout an average year, while its waters support more than a million recreational fishing trips. The RI travel and tourism revenue broke the three billion-dollar mark, at a preliminary estimate of $3.26 billion in 2000. The report further noted that the number of tourism-related businesses and jobs have increased as well. In 2000, an estimate 5,440 businesses contributed to an estimated 38,900 jobs and approximately $669 million in wages.
With more than 100 beaches, 400 miles of picture-perfect coastline, historical and cultural attractions, and world-class dining, tourism and hospitality is Rhode Island's second-largest industry, supporting 80,526 jobs and nearly $7 billion in spending in 2007. http://www.visitrhodeisland.com/travelindustry/index.aspx
NOAA's Office for Coastal Management (OCM) has written a discussion of the recreational value of beaches, in the context of beach fill projects. In 2009 OCM released Introduction to Economics for Coastal Managers, a basic introduction to economic ideas and methods that can be applied to coastal resource management. The economic concepts provided in this introduction are illustrated through several case studies. Other OCM/Digital Coast publications can be found here.
The following two websites provide information on the economic value of coasts and the ocean throughout the country.
The National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP) provides a full range of the most current economic and socio-economic information available on changes and trends along the U.S. coast and in coastal waters. You can download data on jobs and GDP associated with specific types of coastal activities for each coastal state. You also can download data on commercial fishing and landings. The NOEP made public their fully updated Non-Market Valuation website in September 2008. The largest database in the world of studies documenting the environmental and recreational values of ocean resources, the website now includes 1) an updated methodologies section, 2) frequently asked questions, 3) examples of how Non-Market valuation influences public policy, and 4) an expanded table summarizing valuation estimates from across the United States. In 2014 NOEP released an updated State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2014, which points out that there is an imbalance between the economic importance of coasts and coastal oceans and the federal support for stewardship of these resources. According to the report, coastal states supply over 81 percent of American jobs and contribute $13 trillion to the economy, or 84 percent of GDP. More on this here. The National Ocean Economics Program previously released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2009, which presents time-series data compiled over the past 10 years that track economic activities, demographics, natural resource production, non-market values, and federal expenditures in the U.S. coastal zone on land and water. The report states that coastal states account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy. The most recent report released by NOEP is the State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2016. The Center for the Blue Economy (CBE) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey now houses the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP).
The website of Restore America's Estuaries has a report The Economic and Market Value of Coasts and Estuaries: What's At Stake?. According to the report, U.S. coasts and estuaries that have been protected and managed in a sustainable way are worth billions. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive and support large sectors of the national economy. The report focuses on aspects of coasts and estuaries that are most dependent on ecologically healthy conditions. The authors also examined a growing body of research that reveals the economic consequences of environmental change in coastal and estuary ecosystems.
A report A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone was published in December 2010. This report was prepared by ERG for NOAA's Coastal Services Center. The report evaluated different methods and approaches to measure human uses of the coastal and marine environment. The uses were divided into 1) military and industrial uses, 2) consumptive uses (e.g., fishing) and 3) non-consumptive activities (e.g., swimming, surfing, kayaking).
The economic value of beaches can increase or decrease due to a number of factors, including beach width; the presence or absence of amenities such as parking, restrooms or lifeguard services; the suitability of the beach for activities such as surfing or swimming; and the presence or absence of pollution and beach litter. In June 2014 NOAA published an infographic on the high cost of marine debris based on the report Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California, which was prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for NOAA's Marine Debris Division. It found that having debris on the beach and good water quality are the leading factors in deciding which beach residents visit. Reducing marine debris by even 25 percent at beaches in and near Orange County, California, could save residents approximately $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Beach characteristics were collected for 31 popular Southern California public beaches from San Onofre Beach to Zuma Beach. Orange County residents were also surveyed on their recreation habits, including how many day trips they took to the beach from June - August 2013, where they went, how much it cost them, and which beach characteristics are important to them. The results provided in an estimate if how much Orange County residents would potentially benefit, including how often they visit beaches and how much they would save in travel costs, over a summer season by reducing marine debris at some or all of these 31 beaches. The study focused on Orange County because of the number and variety of beaches, their importance to permanent residents, ease of access, and likelihood that marine debris would be present. Researchers believe that, given the results, the study could be modified for assessing similar coastal communities in the United States.
For additional general discussion of the economic impacts of beaches, please see the article Economic Impact of Beaches.
Perception of Supply and Demand
The Office of Strategic Planning and Policy with assistance from the Offices of Planning and Development and Statewide Planning has revised the State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP). The goal of the SCORP is to improve the availability, diversity and quality of outdoor recreational opportunities available to Rhode Island's public by setting outdoor recreation funding priorities for both state and local outdoor recreation facilities that will advance outdoor recreation. Priorities set are based on an assessment of the supply and demand for outdoor recreation facilities.
The National Park Service requires all states to develop and regularly update a SCORP to be eligible for federal outdoor recreation grants from the Land & Water Conservation Funds (LWCF). State and municipalities will be given up to a total of $5 million dollars over the next five years for development, improvement and acquisition of outdoor recreational facilities when the SCORP is completed in December 2002.
Strategic Planning and Policy will publish numerous studies and maps listed below, which will be used as a basis for the supply and demand assessment.
- State Parks and Beach User Survey: How satisfied are Rhode Island's State Park and Beach visitors with the level of customer service they've encountered during their visits? Who is visiting the Parks? Can we better serve our visitors and reach out to those not visiting?
- Draft Outdoor Recreation Needs in Rhode Island - A Survey of State and Local Recreation Professionals, April 2002: What do recreational directors and State Park Managers say about outdoor recreation in their town and/or region?
- Survey of the Rhode Island Population: What do Rhode Islanders want or need in terms of outdoor recreation?
- Study to Identify the Underprivileged population: How can this population gain better access to outdoor recreation facilities and be better served in terms of needs and wants.
The SCORP summarizes methodology for gathering data for the outdoor recreation maps; describes trends for the supply of outdoor recreation facilities; and contains reference maps, outdoor recreation amenity maps and maps that compare the actual number of facilities per person in Rhode Island to the recommended recreation standards for facilities per person.
Public Education Program
As mentioned above, the Daytripper's Guide to Rhode Island is an excellent resource.
The Education and Outreach and Guides and Reports sections of CRMC's Website provide access to many downloadable documents as well as links to other information resources for coastal issues.
Also on CRMC's Website links to the 95-page Public Access to the Rhode Island Coast, Coastal Briefings - Public Right of Ways: CRMC's Designation Process, the brochure The Public Trust: Public Access Your Rights to the Coastal Lands and Waters of Rhode Island, as well as several other publications relating to coastal access.
State of Rhode Island DEM
Division of Parks & Recreation
2321 Hartford Ave
Johnston, RI 02919-1719
Phone: (401) 222-2632
RI Division of Parks and Recreation
Rhode Island Sea Grant
University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay Campus
Narragansett, RI 02882
Phone: (401) 874-6842
Rhode Island Sea Grant
- Freedman, J. and Higgins, M., 2003. What Do You Mean by High Tide? The Public Trust Doctrine in Rhode Island, proceedings of the 13th Biennial Coastal Zone Conference, Baltimore, MD
- Adam Zitello, University of Rhode Island. Personal communication. July 24, 2002.
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