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RI - A Timeline of the Fight For Coastal Access in Rhode Island

Rhode Island beachgoers and waterfront landowners have a long history of battling it out over shoreline access boundaries.

In 1663, King Charles II’s royal charter granted the citizens of Providence Plantations the right to freely fish. In 1842, the authors of the state’s first constitution phrased this right as “privileges of the shore.” Nearly 150 years later, a constitutional convention specified those privileges as “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.” But increasingly, the weight of these words has been inadequate to carry a determined beachgoer over the obstacle of a waterfront landowner. So, the war for the shore has run hot on the sands and cold in the courtroom as the meaning of this right has been debated.

In the late 1970s, a skirmish broke out in Westerly between Wilfred Kay, whose home fronted Misquamicut Beach, and the Rhode Island Mobile Sportfishermen Club, whose members liked to surf-cast there. Kay was a prominent citizen and business owner who vehemently objected to the presence of their vehicles, which he contended destroyed the dunes. Kay had drawn a literal line in the sand, marking his property bounds with a series of stakes on the beach. In 1976, Kay brought the matter to the Town Council, which permitted vehicles on the beach but limited access during the summer season. The fishermen argued that Mother Nature was shifting the coastline, and at least one member had a Coastal Resources Management Council permit to bring his truck onto the sand.

In September 1977, six club members picked up trash on the town beaches during their annual cleanup. Kay summoned the Westerly police, who arrested the six men for trespassing. The case went to District Court; the CRMC intervened, concerned about the impact of one trespassing case on the entire state’s constitutional rights. Meanwhile, the feud simmered. The following fall, Dick Morris, a Connecticut fisherman, called the police on Kay, alleging that he grabbed a fishing rod from the back of his truck and threw it through the windshield. Kay countered that Morris had knocked him to the ground with his vehicle; he returned fire, filing a trespassing complaint against Morris.

The disposition of the malicious mischief charge against Kay could not be found in The Providence Journal archives. What happened to the fishermen became a legal precedent that defines the battles of today. In February 1979, a District Court judge found the six guilty and fined them $10. In December 1980, Superior Court Judge Albert E. DeRobbio dismissed the charges, ruling that the public’s constitutional right of access extended to the high-water mark along the shore. In 1982, the Rhode Island Supreme Court took up the State v. Ibbison — so named for fisherman James Ibbison III. The court ruled that the mean high tide point — a vertical measurement averaged over 18.3 years, fixed and underwater most of the time — and not the high-water mark — the visible and changeable line of seaweed along the beach — was the boundary between public and private property.

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