Wednesday, June 15, 2016

YOURS, MINE, EVERYONE’S: Upholding Constitutional Access to RI’s Shoreline

By Tom Kutcher, Narragansett Baykeeper & David Prescott, South County Coastkeeper

Sure, other states have beautiful natural resources that technically belong to everyone, but in Rhode Island, we really mean it. In fact, 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.” 

Three designated public access points to the
South Kingstown shoreline lie beyond this barricade.
Since our beginnings in 1970, Save The Bay has been committed to improving public access to our beautiful Bay, rivers, coastal ponds and south coast. Indeed, our primary vision is swimmable, fishable and healthy waters that are accessible to everyone. Toward that end, we are working on a public access initiative that will make it easier for folks to enjoy our beautiful waters, beaches and rocky coast. Along with state agencies and other non-government partners, we are working to improve your access to these areas throughout Rhode Island. 

The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) has jurisdiction over public access to the shore. From its inception in 1971 through today, CRMC has designated 222 rights of way to guarantee that access and now has an active program aimed at designating more rights of way—one for every mile of coastline in the state—that would amount to 420 rights of way. In fact, the 222nd public access point, in Bristol, was added just this year as part of that program, and more sites are currently under review. Save The Bay is pleased to work with CRMC on this effort by identifying potential new rights of way and by managing volunteer lawyers who are helping with the title work necessary to designate future public access sites. 

But that’s not all. Thanks to grants from REI and other foundations, Save The Bay staff and interns are visiting, assessing and mapping all 221 previously existing designated rights of way in Rhode Island to determine if they are, in fact, accessible to the public. We are characterizing important attributes such as parking availability, path condition, and potential uses, and have taken pictures of the entrance, exit and shoreline of every site. The information we’re collecting will be used to update, enhance, and correct an online map of all CRMC-designated public rights of way to the shore. 

We’re also using the data to identify rights of way that are in need of maintenance, advocacy or litigation, and we will work with CRMC in resolving any of these issues. So far, we have found more than a few blatant access issues at some of the sites, including illegal dumping of debris, completely overgrown vegetation, and outright blocking of access with fences, sheds and other structures (a pool, in one case). We will work with the state and other partners to address and resolve these issues. 

We are also toying with the idea of creating a smartphone app that can link a person’s location with right of way data to let a user know if there is access nearby and provide information about the access. We feel this could be helpful for getting people out to the shore, particularly young people who will become the next generation of stewards responsible for protecting Narragansett Bay. We believe that once they see our beautiful Bay, rivers, beaches and coastline, they will love them, respect them and want to protect them for years to come.