Northeast
Chris Kraig / The Providence Journal

RI - Where is it legal to walk on RI beaches? You might need to tread water, scientists say

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — At exactly 2:05 p.m., seven minutes before low tide, it arrives, the moment the geologists have been waiting for.

A wave breaks onto the Town Beach. Foamy water runs up the sand. It slows down as it loses energy and comes to a stop a few inches below the line between two orange stakes that Janet Freedman and Nathan Vinhateiro have planted in the beach.

“We’ve got a dry one,” Freedman announces. “The first time you can walk on the beach.”

The stakes show the exact location of the mean high tide line, the boundary between where the public can and cannot go in front of privately owned sections of the Rhode Island shoreline. Anything below the line is allowed. Above it and you’re trespassing.

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Freedman and Vinhateiro are here as part of a project for the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute that aims to document how much beach the public can actually access and for how long over the course of a typical day.

For the last four hours, they’ve been watching the tide slowly go out, taking GPS measurements every five minutes of wave run-ups. It’s not until low tide is fast approaching that a wave finally falls short of the line, marking the first time since the sun rose that there was any section of dry beach that the public had a right to be on.  

What the two scientists are showing through precise satellite measurements is something that has long been known: that use of the mean high tide line in state law doesn’t give the public very much access at all to the shoreline.

How is the mean high tide line calculated, and why is it so confusing?

For something so important in determining the rights of all Rhode Islanders, the mean high tide line is poorly understood by most.  

What the two scientists are showing through precise satellite measurements is something that has long been known: that use of the mean high tide line in state law doesn’t give the public very much access at all to the shoreline.

There is no actual line on the beach denoting its location. So it’s up to you to figure it out. If you think it’s the wrack line, where seaweed, shells and other organic material are deposited across the sand, you’re way off.  

Walk back down the beach 50, 60, maybe even 70 feet. You might be knee-deep in water, but you’ll be closer to the right place.

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