Narrangansett RI beach (Flickr)

RI - State beaches would all be public if new bill passes General Assembly

'It's what Roger Williams wanted': Senate debates if beaches should be public up to dunes

Rhode Island's original charter allowed the public to use the "waste land" of the shore for drying fish and rendering whales.

Clearly, the intent was that the entire beach could be used by the public, from the water's edge up to the dunes, attorney Michael Rubin told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. After all, if you're going to render a whale for its oil, you're probably not going to do it in a place where the blubber could be washed away.

"Regrettably, it is too late to recover the past that existed before intensive development," he said.

Senate Bill 0417, sponsored by Sen. Mark McKenney, D-Warwick, would establish that beaches are public up to the vegetation line, where dune grass and other plants grow. It's "what Roger Williams wanted," Rubin said. But, in his view, it may not be viable.

RI man aims to walk the entire coast:But private property and blocked access are a challenge

What would the bill do?

McKenney's bill is a more liberal version of House Bill 5174, which, for the second year in a row, passed the House of Representatives unanimously in April. That bill, introduced by Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, would establish that the public has the right to be only 6 feet above the "recognizable high tide line."

McKenney said on Thursday that he'd initially planned to introduce an identical Senate companion to the House bill. "But it was made clear to me, this body doesn’t rubber-stamp anything," he said. "So I was asked, in effect, what could we do to improve the bill?"

Other states, such as Oregon and Hawaii, use the vegetation line as the boundary between private property and public beach. But some coastal property owners in Rhode Island point out that their deeds extend to the Atlantic Ocean.

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