RI public beach access has become a hot topic in this election

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When Jennifer Douglas was a student at URI, she and her friends used to drive to Narragansett, park on the side streets near the pier, and sit on the rocks overlooking the ocean.

About two decades later, she tried to do the same with her children – only to find that every street had “No Parking” signs, she said.

It was part of a larger trend she had noticed, such as “No Trespassing” signs appearing near South Kingstown Town Beach. Little by little, the coast became “less and less accessible to men”.

Douglas, of Charlestown, is now running for a state Senate seat, and she is one of a handful of General Assembly candidates campaigning on shore access – mentioning the issue prominently on their palm cards and campaign websites and raising it when they knock on doors.

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A few years ago, this would have been unimaginable: shore access was barely on the radar of politicians seeking state-level office. But that is changing, and candidates are realizing the issue has broad popular support among voters who otherwise disagree.

“I’ve yet to meet a single person who says, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t care about that,'” Douglas said.

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A renewed interest in Rhode Islanders’ constitutional right to shore began to surface in 2019 after activist Scott Keeley was arrested while picking up seaweed.

Then, the following summer, the pandemic pushed people to spend more time outdoors as many communities restricted beach access in the name of safety.

“It’s really exploded as a problem,” said representative Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth.

Cortvriend is the Legislature’s leading advocate for shore access, something she could not have anticipated when she was first elected in 2018. She became interested in the issue after Keeley mentioned that access would be compromised by sea level rise – the subject that was his primary focus.

This year, after an extensive study process, Cortvriend and House Minority Leader Blake Filippi introduced a bill that would have established that the public has the right to be 10 feet above the “recognizable high tide line”, or seaweed line. (The buffer zone was later reduced to 6 feet.)

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The Senate did not consider the bill

The bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously, but was never heard in the Senate, where Speaker Dominick Ruggerio told the Providence Journal that it was “not even on the screen. radar”.

Greg Pare, a spokesman for Ruggerio, said the proposal was “a complex issue that raises a host of questions, including property rights implications, potential legal challenges and financial ramifications for the state.” .

The House spent “many months” exploring the subject in a study committee, then had a “lengthy public hearing process in committee” on the bill, but the Senate was not involved in this process, Pare said.

He said it would have been “irresponsible for the leadership of the Senate to ask members of the Senate to vote on a bill that has not gone through a thorough committee process, especially such a complex bill”.

“We have an obligation to the public to thoroughly consider all the issues before us, but now was not the time to do so on the shore access bill we received in June. “, Pare said, noting that the Senate adjourned on June 23 and that there had been “very little time in the session to plan hearings and perform due diligence.” (The bill passed the House on June 2.)

Cortvriend, who is running unopposed, plans to reintroduce the bill next year, and there are growing numbers of state senate candidates commissioning questions know if they will support it. Filippi is not seeking re-election, but Tina Spears, the Democrat vying to replace him, says on her campaign website that it “will continue the fight to preserve access to the shore for future generations”.

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Meanwhile, some activists are throwing their support behind Lenny Cioe, a progressive who nearly beat Ruggerio in 2020 and are challenging him again.

Over the summer, Cioe updated the “Issues” section of its website to note its support for Cortvriend’s bill. In an interview, he said the issue has been on his radar for some time. Last year, while walking along the shore at Roy Carpenter’s Beach in South Kingtown, he was asked to leave and told the property was private, he said.

In the 1970s, Cioe added, there was a path he and his family took to get to Bonnet Shores Beach despite not being members of the beach club. But when he returned about a year ago, he was gone.

Also, parts of the coast where his family used to go quahogging have been built up and are now off limits, he said.

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“I know things are developing,” he said. “But there are some things that are uniquely Rhode Island that are taken away from us.”

Cioe is part of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, which has a stated mission to elect a government “It will work for Rhode Islanders, not the super-rich.”

He describes the struggle for beach access in similar terms: “wealthy New Yorkers” and “wealthy developers” make it difficult for the average Rhode Islander to access the coastline, he said. “It’s indicative of what’s happening across our state.”

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In Senate District 38, which covers Westerly and parts of South Kingstown and Charlestown, the Democratic primary field includes two candidates who describe shoreline access as a top priority: Victoria Gu and Michael Niemeyer.

Gu lives near Quonochontaug Pond in Charlestown. In her “Mother T” letter to voters, she described how she grew up fishing with his father, an immigrant who had lived a subsistence lifestyle on an island near Shanghai before settling in South Kingstown.

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The coast is not only a place of leisure, she stresses; it is also a place where people go fishing, clam fishing and crabbing.

“A handful of owners shouldn’t impede access to the shore when it’s a resource for everyone,” she said in an interview.

Niemeyer, who lives in Westerly and is a member of the Political Co-op, said voters started talking to him about shore access as soon as he started running, and he found it “a problem powerful for a surprisingly large number of people”.

He sees the issue as an example of “powerful people being able to bend the system to their will and infringe on our rights” – an issue that crosses partisan divides because it “gets to the heart of the outrage you hear from both sides from the driveway.”

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The two will face Westerly City Council Speaker Sharon Ahern in the September 13 primary. for the seat vacated by Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algierea Republican representing District 38.

Gu said if elected, she would champion the Cortvriend Coastal Access Bill in the Senate and make it one of her top priorities.

She also said that when the Senate votes on the leadership positions, she will ask the contemplated lawmakers if they will hold a floor vote on the bill, and “that will largely determine who I vote for in terms of leadership in the Senate. .”

Gu said she would also like to see the state ensure that the Coastal Resource Management Board has enough funds to “take concrete action against misleading signs,” such as “Private Property” or ” Trespass Prohibition” located next to Public Rights. of routes.

She said she saw the need to brake fire districts that own waterfront properties. “I am troubled by attempts to privatize the coastline,” she said. “It goes against my values ​​to try to ensure everyone has access to the shore.”

In an email, Niemeyer said he supports Cortvriend’s bill but that the buffer zone should be 10ft, as originally proposed. He also wants to see “an end to political appointments at the CRMC and an expansion of its resources and staff.”

In the short term, he said, Rhode Island should place a moratorium on fire districts buying waterfront properties. In the long term, he would like to see the General Assembly pass a bill that would “consolidate” fire districts that do not allocate the majority of their budgets to “internal public safety services.”

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As part of this process, he said, the state should have the ability to identify assets that “are not serving public safety purposes,” such as beaches, and reallocate them to ” entities that hold them as public property”.

“It would be a massive fight, and I’m open to other suggestions,” he said. “But we can’t let them go on like this indefinitely.”

A potent problem in South County, where life ‘revolved around the ocean’

With the exception of Cioe, who is running in North Providence, most candidates campaigning on coastal access live in Charlestown and Westerly.

Douglas, a Democrat challenging Republican Senator Elaine Morgan for the third time, is one of them.

Growing up in South County, she said “every activity until winter came revolved around the ocean.” So, as it became more difficult to access the shore, “we really realized that”.

“A lot of us tried to raise families here so that our kids could have the same kind of childhood, and all of a sudden it’s gone,” she said.

Douglas lives in Charlestown, and she said Keeley’s arrest “opened up a huge conversation about riparian rights.” She also came to see it as an Aboriginal rights issue after speaking with a tribesman who told her that the beach was where religious ceremonies for the Narragansett Indian tribe traditionally took place.

Like Cioe and Niemeyer, Douglas is a member of the left-wing political cooperative. But she finds the question resonates in a fairly conservative neighborhood.

“There are people who hate me because I’m a progressive Democrat — they absolutely hate my politics,” she said. “But it’s something we can agree on. I love it.”


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