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RI Public Access: A Tradition of Value

The value of safeguarding access to the shoreline has a long history in Rhode Island, reflected in the names of favorite sites.

1 Places that were special to the Indians, such as Misquamicut (red fish or salmon) and Matunuck (lookout), are now state beaches. Neighborhood rights-of-way or street ends still provide access to the Kickemuit River (source of water), Apponaug Cove (place of oysters), Sakonnet (place of black geese), and the Woonasquatucket River (as far as the tide goes).

Pettaquamscutt Rock (round rock), site of one of the early purchases of land from the Narragansett sachems by British colonists, still offers a lofty view of the Narrow River and the mouth of Narragansett Bay. At the head of Narragansett Bay in Pawtucket (at the falls) is the Slater Mill, where the power of
water was first harnessed by Samuel Slater to drive textile machinery, and where the American Industrial Revolution began.

For the colonists, access to the shore was also essential: for fishing-a source of food and income-for transportation before the highways were constructed (South Ferry, Fogland Point Ferry), for pasturing animals (Ram Point, Hog Island), and for gathering seaweed to fertilize crops. Many rights-of-way originated as “driftways”-areas used seasonally for gathering seaweed that had drifted onto shore and carting it away to spread over farmlands. Stinky Beach, so called because of the abundance of rotting seaweed that once collected there, is located just north of Scarborough Beach, one of the most popular state beaches today.

Access to the shore was crucial for the rise of maritime commerce. Some of the lighthouses that were essential beacons for safe shipping now mark favorite access sites on Block Island, Watch Hill, Point Judith, and Beavertail. Ida Lewis Rock in Newport Harbor is named for the lighthouse keeper who became a
national heroine for her decades of courageous service to the ships and sailors of Newport. At Point Judith, the stone breakwaters, now often lined with fishermen, were originally constructed as a harbor of refuge for the thousands of sailing ships and steamboats that passed the point each year.

The importance of coastal access for transportation is still evident in the stone piers of Jamestown Harbor and of South Ferry Road in Narragansett that were former ferry landings. For over 200 years before the bridges were built, these ferries and others were the highway links across the Bay. The ferry from Bristol to Prudence Island has provided continuous service since the 1700s.

Shoreline access has also been critical for military defense. Forts and staging areas were constructed along our coast for every major war in our history. These fortifications have been turned to public use by the federal government and have become some of the most popular public parks: Fort Adams in Newport, Fort Wetherill and Fort Getty in Jamestown, and the gun emplacements at Fort Greene in Narragansett, now part of Fishermen’s
Memorial Park.

Public and Private Rights

The shoreline can be defined as that part of the shore that is regularly covered by the tide. It is considered by common law to be public land, held in trust for the public by the state. Each state has a different interpretation of what activities the public has a right to pursue in these areas. The Rhode Island Constitution specifically protects citizens’ rights to fish from the shore, to gather seaweed, to leave the shore to swim in the sea, and to walk along the shore. In Rhode Island, state waters of public domain extend from mean high water three miles out to sea. Above mean high water, land and resources can be, and often are, privately owned.

Access along the shore has been a common expectation and legal right for generations of Rhode Islanders. Trespassing across private property to reach the shore, however, is illegal. Since most waterfront property in Rhode Island is privately owned, those seeking to reach the shore without trespassing must rely on the various public lands and access ways that dot the coast.

Role of CRMC

As trustee of Rhode Island’s coastal resources and in accordance with state and federal statutory mandates, CRMC has a responsibility to ensure that public access to the shore is protected, maintained, and, where possible, enhanced for the benefit of all.

CRMC recognizes that well-designed and maintained public access sites and improvements to existing public access sites can enhance the value of adjacent properties. In addition, properly designed, maintained, and marked public access facilities, including adequate parking areas, can reduce the pressures for use of or infringement upon adjacent properties.

Certain activities that require the private use of public trust resources to the exclusion of other public uses necessarily impact public access. In general, these activities include commercial, industrial, and residential developments and redevelopment projects, or activities that involve filling and/or building on or over
tidal waters. This would also include the construction of structural shoreline protection facilities.

Projects involving the alteration of coastal areas, including those that affect public rights-of-way to the coast, require permits from CRMC. CRMC requires applicants to provide, where appropriate, access of a similar type and level to that which is being impacted as the result of a proposed activity or development project. Once projects receive council approval with public access components, these projects are eligible for limited liability protection under R.I.G.L. 32-6-5(c). Projects seeking council approval should also follow the general public access guidelines. For more information, visit the CRMC website at www.crmc.state.ri.us .

Role of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management

The R.I. Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) oversees the management, including maintenance and acquisition, of state parks and beaches. RIDEM also oversees the management of open space bond money for state or municipal acquisition and/or development of various coastal open space areas. RIDEM maintains boat ramps for fishing access to salt and fresh waters statewide.

What You Can Do Concerned about public access to the shore? Your involvement is important. If you believe that you know the location of a potential right-of-way or have any information that can assist CRMC at any point in the designation process, please contact CRMC at (401) 222-2476.