If the House Special Commission on shoreline rights doesn’t change its wording, Rhode Islanders will soon say goodbye to their rights to the shoreline. In the news and in current commission proposals, our rights to the shoreline are being mistakenly represented as “passage along the shoreline,” or “where you’re allowed to walk on the beach.”
Rhode Islanders are not asking permission to walk on the beach. What we are asking — demanding — is that our constitutional rights to “all the rights of fishery and privileges of the shore, to which we have been heretofore entitled, under the charter and usages of the state,” be upheld. Those are the words of the Rhode Island Constitution. Those are our rights. Not merely “passage.” Not walking, but enjoying, sitting, sunbathing, playing ball, relaxing — all “the privileges of the shore.” At issue is where, not how, and not whether. That’s why the commission was formed — to clarify the boundary between public and private property at the shoreline. Currently, the boundary is defined by an average of high-water heights measured across an 18.6-year cycle, as set forth in the Ibbison case of 1982. Agreeing that this attempt at definition clears up nothing, the commission is hearing testimony from all parties. But it has been led off course, it seems, by crafty attorneys hired by beachfront-property owners. In its current proposals of a wrack-line boundary, the commission keeps wrongly using the word “passage” along the shore. The citizens of Rhode Island are not asking for passage. We are asking that all our constitutional rights to the shoreline be defended.
The shoreline-rights commission must not have only the words “passage” or “walking along the shoreline” in its language; they must instead use the words that already define our rights: all the “privileges of the shore, to which we have been heretofore entitled, under the charter and usages of the state … Liberally construed.”
These rights and privileges, according to Article 1, Section 17 of the state Constitution, “include, but are not limited to” fishing from the shore, the gathering of seaweed, leaving the shore to swim in the sea, and passage along the shore. Importantly, according to the section preceding that, these rights “shall be liberally construed.” Up until recently, they were. Then private-property owners got greedy, deciding that their property rights somehow extend into the sea, hiring security guards to patrol their imagined boundaries. Now, as they infiltrate our lawmaking process, private-interest attorneys are attempting to wiggle-word our rights out of existence.
And with their current choice of words, the Rhode Island House Special Commission comes dangerously close to letting this happen. Beware: any proposal putting forth the word “passage” without explicit reiteration of “all the rights and privileges” of the shore, liberally construed, would be unconstitutional.
Regina DeAngelo, Charlestown
This article appeared as a Letter to The Editor in The Westerly Sun on February 19.