...to preserve, protect, develop, and restore coastal resources for all Rhode Islanders
Presented by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council and RI Sea Grant, “Shoreline Access 101: What You Need to Know” was the first webinar in a summer series of programming regarding shoreline public access across the state. Jeffrey Willis, Executive Director of the CRMC, provided an overview of shoreline public access in Rhode Island, including CRMC’s role in designating rights-of-way to the coast.
Rhode Island State Constitution
Article 1, Section 17
"The people 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, including but not limited to fishing from the shore, the gathering of seaweed, leaving the shore to swim in the sea and passage along the shore; and they shall be secure in their rights to the use and enjoyment of the natural resources of the state with due regard for the preservation of their values;"
In 1958, the Rhode Island General Assembly created a commission on the discovery and utilization of public rights of way (ROWs) to the shore. In 1980, CRMC was given the responsibility to continue discovering ROWs. It specifically does this through its standing subcommittee on rights-of-way. Since then, CRMC has designated 229 public access points along Rhode Island’s shoreline. CRMC does not create public ROWs, but rather formally investigates whether a shoreline access point already exists, based on evidence of designation (e.g., deeded by a private landowner) or historic use. Once this evidence is gathered and submitted to the subcommittee, the site may be approved as a designated CRMC ROW or the subcommittee may determine that the proposed site requires more evidence to approve it as a ROW. The designation process has slowed largely due to lack of funding.
The ROW subcommittee, a standing CRMC subcommittee which meets monthly, aims to discover rights of ways through research that is generally started at the staff level, or with the participation of a municipality. While the subcommittee originally had a budget for CRMC staff to conduct the initial research required to determine whether a site was suitable to go through the CRMC ROW designation process, this first step is now conducted in partnership with the city or town. Most recently, CRMC has worked with municipalities to generate a list of possible shoreline access points, which can be included in harbor management or comprehensive land use plans, at which point CRMC and legal counsel from the municipality may conduct further legal research to collect evidence for the designation process. Community members may also submit potential ROW sites. If, after this initial research, legal counsel determines that enough documentation exists to start the evidentiary designation process, the ROW subcommittee and CRMC staff will work with municipalities, legal counsel, and other stakeholders to continue to collect relevant evidence. Once all of this information is accumulated, the subcommittee will hold a public hearing to gather input from community members regarding the proposed ROW—the testimonies of these individuals are included as evidence to contribute to the designation process. These hearings can last hours, days, or even weeks depending on participation.
Following the public hearings, the ROW subcommittee deliberates, based on all of the evidence gathered throughout the entire process, and makes a decision in the form of a written recommendation on whether or not it can support the proposed CRMC ROW. This decision is forwarded to the full Council as a recommendation. The Council then deliberates over the ROW subcommittee’s decision and will only accept new evidence that was not available until after the subcommittee’s deliberative hearing process was closed. The Council makes the final decision to approve each right-of-way, which preserves public use of the site as a shoreline access point in perpetuity.
Once a right-of-way is formally designated, the municipality in which the ROW is located is typically responsible for maintenance. The CRMC provides free marker posts and signage for the municipality to install at the ROW. Some ROWs are also maintained through the Adopt-an-Access program, where businesses, nonprofit organizations, community groups, or individuals will take responsibility for the upkeep of the ROW. Adopt-an-Access partners are recognized with signage indicating their support at the right-of-way. For more detailed information on shoreline access signage, visit http://www.crmc.ri.gov/publicaccess.html.
There are currently nine sites under review in four towns across the state: Providence, Portsmouth, South Kingstown, and Westerly, in addition to a citizen-generated right of way site in Warwick. While many designated right-of-ways are proposed by municipalities, the CRMC also welcomes community-generated ROW proposals. Individuals can learn more about how to support the ROW designation process at http://www.crmc.ri.gov/publicaccess.html.
The CRMC is making a concerted effort to continue to designate right-of-ways and enhance coastal access across the state of Rhode Island. CRMC’s ultimate goal is to designate one ROW for every mile of coastline, amounting to around 420 coastal access points. Though funding for this work has dwindled in recent years, the CRMC has continued to support shoreline public access by working with municipalities, public works departments, and communities to designate and maintain coastal ROWs.
This summer, CRMC is working with students from the Roger Williams University School of Law to conduct the legal research necessary to support ROW proposals, providing the state with much needed legal assistance, which has previously not been available due to the lack of funding.
CRMC is also partnering with the Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island to update and maintain CRMC’s user-friendly ArcGIS map of designated ROWs across the state. This interactive map provides the user with not only a visual representation of where each ROW is located but also pictures and the legal proceedings of each site as background materials for those so interested.
For more information on CRMC’s right-of-way designation process and additional resources on shoreline access, visit http://www.crmc.ri.gov/publicaccess.html.
For a database of all shoreline access points in Rhode Island, including those designated by CRMC, visit http://www.shoreline-ri.com. This website, developed and maintained by Rhode Island Sea Grant, allows visitors to sort access points by location or desired activity, and contains helpful information such as photographs of access points, parking opportunities, and more.