Rhode Island BHA works to clarify Public Trust Access to the Shore

Rhode Island’s Constitution, Article 1 Section 17 states: “The People shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all rights of fishery, and the privileges of the shore, to which they have been heretofore entitled under the charter and usage 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”

This language was approved by over 2/3 of Rhode Island voters in a ballot initiative following the 1986 Rhode Island Constitutional Convention. Regrettably, neither the Rhode Island Constitution nor Rhode Island General Law clearly defines the boundary where rights granted in Article 1 Section 17 can be practiced.

In the 1982 RI Supreme Court Case State v. Ibbison it was determined that the boundary of the state’s ownership along the shore occurs at the “mean high tide line” as determined by the 18.6 year average of high tides. This does not serve as an adequate and clear boundary for where rights granted through Article 1 Section 17 can be practice because:

  • The “mean high tide line” cannot reasonably be determined in real time, especially on the dynamic sandy shoreline
  • The expectation that the sea level will rise places such a long-term average perpetually underwater, which was not the intention of Article 1 Section 17 when it was approved by RI voters.

Referencing State v. Ibbison, private landowners and beach clubs boldly place “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs along the shore down to the mean high tide line in an attempt to restrict the public’s access. Over the years, conflicts between beachgoers and landowners have resulted in arrests and legal proceedings, but no convictions for criminal trespass have been won because of the lack of a clear boundary.

Two bills in the RI General Assembly, H5469 & S0521, intend to establish a clear boundary where rights granted in Article 1 Section 17 can be practiced – within 10 feet of the most recent high tide line on the sandy or rocky shore - by establishing an exemption from criminal trespass prosecution within the stated boundary.

New England BHA testified in support of H5469 during a public hearing on February 23, 2021 at the RI House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. If passed in to law, H5469 would remove the ambiguity from determining where shoreline rights could be practiced, allowing conflicts to be resolved quickly and on-scene using simple measuring tools rather than subjecting legal beachgoers to the risk of unfounded criminal prosecution for trespassing because of confusion over where the boundary occurs.

Please take a minute to read our letter to the Committee in support of H5469

S0521 was introduced and is assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has not been scheduled for a public hearing yet.

New England BHA will be hosting a public event focused on Public Trust & Shoreline Access in Rhode Island on March 19, 2021, and you can register for the event here.

About New England BHA Chapter

New England BHA is a voice for the sporting community in New England that values solitude, silence, clean and free flowing rivers, and habitat for large, wide-ranging wildlife.