The state will use the federal money being awarded on designs and permitting to improve access at Gull Cove in Portsmouth and the Quonochontaug Pond Breachway, a popular boat launch used by fishermen and recreational boaters in Charlestown.

In both areas, rising sea levels have caused erosion and periodic flooding, creating obstacles for people trying to reach the areas by foot and vehicle. 

“It's mostly about coastal resiliency,” DEM Director Terrence Gray said of the planning grant at a news conference at Gull Cove Tuesday morning. “So it really is protecting what we have now.” 

The work to be done at the Quonochontaug Breachway, commonly known as the Quonnie Boat Ramp, is intended to help maintain a public access road to the area through Charlestown by moving it inward and protecting it with a vegetative buffer, Gray said. 

“It's really at risk,” he said. “What this does is really makes that access road a little bit more stable, a little bit more durable–more resilient–so people will be able to continue to get out there.”

The expected improvements are to be made on the east side of the Quonochontaug Breachway and will not impact the breachway’s west side, where restrictions to public access over the Quonochontaug Barrier Beach in the town of Westerly are more significant.

The Westerly Town Council has asked the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council to review whether the sand trail leading down the barrier beach–which is mostly owned by special fire districts and private conservation groups–is also a public right of way. 

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management owns the breachway land at the end of the barrier beach and holds easements associated with it, but it uses its access point through Charlestown to maintain the breachway and provide public use of the shore.

In recent years, the issue of shoreline access has gained considerable momentum, as advocates in coastal towns have called for state and local officials to improve access to the ocean in areas where private property owners have stepped up efforts to control the shoreline.

The federal money being used to plan for the improvements in Portsmouth and Charlestown comes from the National Coastal Resilience Fund. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who helped establish the fund in 2018, was on hand at the news conference in Portsmouth to announce the grant. 

When asked what could be done at the federal level to improve public access, Whitehouse said Congress could help provide funding to protect areas currently being used by the public, but decisions about where people can go to reach the shore or park their cars near the ocean “are really innately local questions.” 

“My focus has been on making sure that the resource is there when the public finds their way through [to the shore],” Whitehouse said. “We've already seen the practical disappearance of what used to be enormous beaches along particularly the South County shore.”

Alex Nunes can be reached at