The suggestion to take the commission on the road to Southern Rhode Island was made at the group’s first meeting on Tuesday by member Michael Rubin, a former assistant attorney general for Rhode Island who recently became involved in a dispute over a contested right of way in the Weekapaug section of Westerly he believes should be open to the public. 

“That might facilitate public input,” Rubin said of holding a meeting in South County.

Disputes between beachfront property owners and public beachgoers have intensified in Southern Rhode Island since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when shoreline restrictions stiffened.

Commission member Dennis Nixon, a professor emeritus of marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, said it makes sense to seek public comment in an area where the subject is especially relevant. 

“This is such a high interest topic,” Nixon said. “To the extent that we can be out there in the field where the actual conflicts are occuring I think would lend some greater credibility to the work that we’re trying to do.”

The public hearing in South County will be held Nov. 18, likely at a location in Charlestown, said the commission’s chair and state Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Portsmouth, Middletown). On Tuesday, the commission also approved state Rep. Blake Filippi (R- New Shoreham, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly) as vice-chair of the commission.

The group will likely hold another public comment period at the State House on Oct. 28 and host speakers on shoreline access subjects at meetings throughout the fall. 

The topics will include coastal science, historical and legal background on shoreline access, the economic benefits of coastal access, property rights, and a presentation on rights of way to the shore by the executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, Jeff Willis, who is also a member of the shoreline access commission.

Cortvriend said she’d also like to have the commission study previously proposed shoreline legislation.

The group’s being tasked with studying the public’s right to use land along the water, but members say there will also be some consideration of perpendicular access down to the shore.

The Rhode Island Constitution guarantees the public the right to use the shoreline, but it does not specify where public rights end and private property rights begin. The state’s highest court has said the public must stay below an 18.6-year mean high tide line, but critics say that boundary is too difficult to easily determine and it’s led to confrontations between property owners and beachgoers.

The House commission evolved out of an earlier proposal to exempt beachgoers from trespass charges so long as they stay within 10 feet of the most recent high tide line. That proposal was met with stiff opposition from property owners and failed to get necessary support.

State lawmakers instead decided to form the commission, which now includes 12 appointees representing a variety of professional backgrounds and viewpoints on shoreline access.

The group is tasked with submitting its findings and recommendations to state lawmakers by March 22, 2022.

The members include Save The Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone, Mark McKenney, a land use attorney, retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Francis Flaherty, Julia Wyman, of Roger Williams University’s Marine Affairs Institute and the Rhode Island Sea Grant legal program, and realtor David Splaine.

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org