...to preserve, protect, develop, and restore coastal resources for all Rhode Islanders
“A public right-of-way (ROW) to the shore is a parcel of land over which the public has the right to pass on foot or, if appropriate, by vehicle, in order to access the tidal waters of Rhode Island. Accordingly, public ROWs can be used for a variety of activities. In some cases, public ROWs provide access for fishing and scenic overlooks while in other cases, public ROWs can be used to launch a boat.” —A citizen’s guide to assisting with the ROW process
The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) is the state agency tasked by the R.I. General Assembly with designating public rights-of-way to the shore. CRMC-designated rights-of-way are protected for public use in perpetuity. To find all CRMC-designated ROWs, go to http://www.crmc.ri.gov/publicaccess.html.
There are 230 CRMC-designated rights-of-way and nearly 400 coastal access points along the Rhode Island shoreline. For a map of all CRMC-designated rights-of-way, visit https://arcg.is/iDzme. To find a shoreline access point near you, visit www.shoreline-ri.com. This site, developed and maintained by Rhode Island Sea Grant with the cooperation of the RI Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), contains information on over 400 shoreline access sites across the state, including CRMC designated rights-of-way. You can search by location and activity, as well as find information on parking, permit requirements or fees, open hours, and more.
As of fall 2021, the CRMC has designated 230 rights-of-way in the state of Rhode Island. However, not all public shoreline access points in the state go through the CRMC designation process—cities, towns, nonprofit organizations, and the State of Rhode Island can also identify and maintain rights-of-way to the shore. To find a shoreline access point near you, visit www.shoreline-ri.com. For a map of all CRMC designated rights-of-way, visit https://arcg.is/iDzme.
Article I, Section 17 of the Rhode Island State Constitution states: “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…”
There are over 400 coastal access points for Rhode Islanders and visitors alike to visit the shoreline, from CRMC designated rights-of-way to state beaches. To find a shoreline access point near you, visit www.shoreline-ri.com. This comprehensive site includes information about parking, directions, any costs or permits required, photos of the site, and more. To find a CRMC-designated right-of-way near you, visit https://arcg.is/iDzme. CRMC designated rights-of-ways are open to the public for use throughout the year, however, visitors should obey all posted signage regarding parking and other related town ordinances in the municipality where the right-of-way is located.
Any coastal land below the mean high water line is considered public and can be used for these recreational purposes. However, in some cases, the upland beach area or land surrounding public access points can be privately owned, so it is important to observe posted signage and be respectful of neighboring properties. In cases where you are unsure of property ownership, please consult one of the resources listed above for additional information on the site you’d like to visit.
Mean high water (MHW) is the average of all high tides occurring during a National Tidal Datum Epoch (NDTE). The NTDE is an 18.6-year period used by scientists to calculate tidal averages. https://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/datum_options.html. Because shorelines are constantly changing due to wind, waves, and human impacts, it is difficult to identify the mean high water line in the field—this line does not always follow the wrack/seaweed line, or the divide between wet and dry sand.
The CRMC does not create rights-of-way. There are six ways that public rights-of-way are established through the CRMC designation process: 1) Roadways which have been laid out, recorded, opened and maintained by a city or town council. 2) Highways by grant or use (R.I.G.L. Chapter 24-2). 3) Ways that have been approved by recordation of a subdivision plat. 4) Ways that have been offered to the public by dedication and accepted by public use or by official city or town action (implied dedication). 5) Highways that have been used by the public since time immemorial. 6) Ways that have been obtained by the public’s adverse use. (http://www.crmc.ri.gov/publicaccess/ROWCoastalBriefing.pdf)
The ROW Subcommittee, a standing CRMC subcommittee which meets monthly, aims to discover rights-of-way through staff-generated research, or with the participation of a municipality, community group, homeowners association, non-profit organization, or individual. The first step in discovering and designating rights-of-way is to determine whether a site was suitable to go through the ROW designation process. This determination is made by conducting extensive research on the site’s history. This research is currently conducted by the CRMC in partnership with a municipality, and is no longer budgeted for CRMC staff alone.
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 plans. The CRMC and legal counsel from the municipality can then conduct further legal research to collect evidence for the designation process. Community members may also submit potential ROW sites. If, after this initial research, CRMC legal counsel determines that enough legal 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 is 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 process, and makes a decision in the form of a written recommendation on whether or not it can support the proposed ROW. This decision is forwarded to the full CRMC Council as a recommendation, where the Council deliberates over the ROW Subcommittee’s recommendation, however after the recommendation was received the full Council can only accept new evidence that was not previously or reasonably available during the evidentiary hearing process. The Council makes the final decision to approve each right-of-way, which, once approved, becomes a public site for all citizens to use in perpetuity.
The CRMC currently has no specific funding to support shoreline public access initiatives, relying on partnerships with municipalities, nonprofit organizations, and individuals to identify, designate, and maintain rights-of-way. The CRMC works with municipalities to generate a list of possible shoreline access points, which can be included in harbor management or comprehensive plans, at which point CRMC and legal counsel from the municipality can conduct further legal research to collect evidence for the designation process. Community members may also submit potential ROW sites. The CRMC also continuously seeks sources of funding to assist in the designation effort. For more information on the evidence collection process, visit http://www.crmc.ri.gov/publicaccess.html.
Once rights-of-way are designated by the CRMC, municipalities are strongly encouraged for maintaining the access point, but not all ROWs are maintained. To help with this effort, The CRMC provides marker posts and signage, which can be installed by Public Works departments. Rights-of-way are also maintained through the CRMC’s Adopt-an-Access program, where businesses, nonprofit organizations, community groups, or individuals will take responsibility for the upkeep of the ROW. Maintenance conducted by Public Works, municipalities, or Adopt-an-Access partners may include installing signage, holding cleanups, and keeping pathways clear. These partnerships between the CRMC and municipalities or community groups are essential for ensuring quality shoreline access points along the coast. Go to the CRMC web site for more info - http://www.crmc.ri.gov/publicaccess.html.
Any CRMC designated right-of-way is eligible to receive signage that can be installed by the municipality. This signage, which is the same at all CRMC-designated rights-of-way, helps visitors to easily identify the spot as a CRMC right-of-way. Maintenance of rights-of-way is left to the municipality in which the access point is located, so it is up to each town or city to install fencing and signage, designate parking, or other maintenance efforts.
Rights-of-way to the coast are not created, but instead are designated based on historic use of the shoreline access. Municipalities or community members can submit a right-of-way for CRMC designation at any point—there is no requirement for shoreline access points to be identified or designated in any specific period of time. However, if a site is being used by the public but is not formally designated, the CRMC encourages individuals or municipalities to begin the designation process as soon as possible to ensure that the site will be protected in perpetuity.
The CRMC welcomes public input throughout the right-of-way designation process. Community members can submit potential rights-of-way and associated research—this could take the form of anything from a photo of a possible site to legal research proving the historic use of the site. For rights-of-way with proposals in progress, people can provide additional comments and evidence during the hearing process. For more information on how to participate in the ROW designation process, please visit: www.crmc.ri.gov/publicaccess.
Obstructions of CRMC designated rights-of-way, including parked cars, structures, or natural materials, can be reported to the Coastal Resources Management Council. Leah Feldman, CRMC policy analyst, and Kevin Cute, CRMC marine resources specialist, work on shoreline public access issues across the state. You can email them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively, and put “ROW obstruction” in the subject of the email, or call CRMC offices at 401-783-3370.
The CRMC actively ensures that signage posted around designated rights-of-way is accurate, and that these rights-of-way remain open to access. Blocking designated CRMC rights-of-way is not permitted, and the CRMC does investigate and resolve blockages in partnership with the Attorney General’s office. Any potentially misleading signage or blockages at CRMC designated rights-of-way should be reported to the CRMC using the above contact information.
Though municipalities could designate rights-of-way on their own, submitting sites for CRMC designation ensures that shoreline access will be protected in perpetuity. The added layer of protection should be encouraging to municipalities invested in protecting and enhancing shoreline public access in their towns.
Once a site has been designated as a public ROW the CRMC prohibits any activities that would obstruct the public’s use of these sites. The CRMC also pursues legal actions against individuals that block or impede the public’s access at designated ROWs. In this manner, the CRMC protects and preserves these sites for the public’s use. Once a public ROW has been designated by the CRMC, it cannot be abandoned by a city or town without prior approval of the CRMC (R.I.G.L. 46-23-6.2). In addition, a public right-of-way that has not been designated by the CRMC, but is never-the-less a public way, cannot be abandoned without formal abandonment proceedings. Moreover, highways which have been designated to the public by the actions of a landowner or acquired by prescription, cannot be lost due to non-use and the public cannot lose its rights due to adverse possession. - (from Coastal Briefing: http://www.crmc.ri.gov/publicaccess/ROWCoastalBriefing.pdf)
Considering future generations of Rhode Islanders is critical when establishing new rights-of-way or maintaining existing access points. Based on current sea level rise predictions, shoreline public access in Rhode Island will likely be impacted, whether through increased flooding events, higher sea levels, or stronger and more frequent storm events. Specifically, the mean high water mark, which is used to demarcate public and private lands, will move over time, likely shifting landward and reducing the amount of space on the beach for the public to traverse. However, there is now a commission created by the R.I. General Assembly that will examine lateral access and work to decriminalize trespassing along the shoreline.