Thursday, April 5, 2018

Constitutional Guarantee: A Bay for All

by Kendra Beaver, staff attorney, David Prescott, South Coastkeeper, and Mike Jarbeau, Baykeeper

“Save The Bay” has become synonymous with improving the quality of our beautiful waters, but you may not realize that we’re also working to ensure that your constitutional right to use the shoreline is upheld. Article 1, Section 17 of the Rhode Island 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… of this state.” 

Our vision is a “fully swimmable, fishable, healthy Narragansett Bay, accessible to everyone.” Since Save The Bay’s inception in 1970, we have been dedicated to preserving and creating lateral access along the shoreline, while fostering a sense of ownership and stewardship for those who use the Bay. 

Community members harvesting
seafood at the Sabin Point shoreline.
The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) has designated 222 “public rights-of-way” that guarantee public access to our shoreline. CRMC also now has an active program aimed at designating more rights-of-way, bringing the total number of state-designated public access points to our shoreline to 420, or one access point per mile of shoreline. 

In collaboration with CRMC and a cohort of other partners and volunteers, Save The Bay recently completed an important project that “ground-truthed” the existing 222 rights-of-way—physically visiting and observing these sites for true accessibility and any obstructions preventing access. We also combined and corrected existing geographic information mapping of the designated rights-of-way. 

Our preliminary report includes the following findings: 
  • Almost half of the access points are in need of maintenance. 
  • More than one-third of the access points are at least partly obstructed to foot traffic. Vegetation overgrowth and property encroachment were the most common obstructions, while purposeful obstruction (placement of boulders, fences, gates, etc.) was observed at nearly 10 percent of the sites. 
  • Only half of the access points provide parking. Without public parking, most citizens are unable to use these rights-of-way, rendering the access obsolete. 
  • Litter was observed at more than a third of the rights-of-way. Only 32 access points had trash receptacles, while 11 had recycling receptacles. 
  • Coastal flooding, coastal erosion and stormwater erosion were observed at about one-third of the access points, highlighting the continued threat to the existence of many of these rights-of-way from climate change and sea level rise. 

In the next phase of this project, we’ll be reaching out to individuals and communities to address obstructions, asking them to remove barriers to access, create parking or bike racks and supply trash and recycling receptacles. 

About 133 miles of Narragansett Bay’s 420-mile shoreline is lined with riprap walls, bulkheads and other manmade structures. These hardened shorelines, combined with rising sea levels and erosion, will only continue to threaten and impede public access. To fully realize our vision for a fully swimmable, fishable, healthy Narragansett Bay, “accessible to all,” we must protect existing rights-of-way and work cooperatively with CRMC and our communities to establish additional rights-of-way, so the waters of Rhode Island may be readily enjoyed by the public as protected by the Rhode Island Constitution. 

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