All of Rhode Island’s beaches are now public — sort of


As long as you’re collecting seaweed, you can stay.

Two people in cold-weather clothes walk along a beach near the ocean.
East Matunuck State Beach in Rhode Island is pictured. Glenn Osmundson for The Boston Globe

Just in time for summer vacation, Rhode Island passed a new law this June making all beaches in the state public within a certain distance from the water. It’s meant to make the shoreline more accessible, but there are a few caveats. So what does the new law say, and what does it mean for beachgoers?

Every R.I. beach is now public — up to 10 feet from the high tide line

In essence, the law says that the state’s beaches are public up to 10 feet away from the high tide line. Even if the upper part of the beach is private — whether it’s a home, beach club, or business — anyone can use the lower part closer to the ocean.

The high tide line, the law explains, is usually demarcated by a continuous line of seaweed, small shells, oil, or scrum. If there is no debris or residue on the beach, the high tide line is the wet line on a sandy or rocky beach. 

‘Rights and privileges of the shore’

Exactly which activities are permitted in the newly public areas of otherwise-private beaches is up for debate. The law states that the public can exercise its “rights and privileges of the shore” — a reference to the same phrasing in Rhode Island’s constitution, which protects activities “including but not limited to” fishing, gathering seaweed, leaving the shore to go for a swim, and passing along the shore. 

Although the right to, say, roll out a towel and sunbathe may not be codified in the state constitution, it could arguably fall under the “not limited to” part of that provision. Some private property owners prefer a more literal interpretation, though, and contend that the law protects only the activities explicitly named in the state constitution.

What’s definitely not allowed is any kind of public use of private amenities (such as decks or beach chairs). This is where things get thorny, because according to the law, beachgoers do not have the right to access the public beach via privately owned property.

A beach club owner, for instance, is not legally required to let you pass across their part of the beach to get down below 10 feet of the high tide line. Realistically, this provision means many beach areas will remain mostly restricted, unless they can be accessed by boat or by walking along the strip of public beach nearest to the ocean.

The law also makes an exception for private seawalls at the water’s edge — like the one in front of Taylor Swift’s Westerly property — which the public is not allowed to access even when they block the area within 10 feet of the high tide line.

A legal challenge from beachside property owners 

No sooner did the new law pass than it was challenged by a federal lawsuit from the Rhode Island Association of Coastal Taxpayers (RIACT), who say it “opens their residential life to the constant presence of strangers, destroying privacy and raising safety concerns.”

RIACT is seeking an injunction to block the law while they litigate their case. But Attorney General Peter Neronha, who along with the Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council is a defendant in the suit, suggested in a tweet that he is unfazed by the group’s efforts. 

“‘Get off my sand’?” he wrote. “Please.”