The question will echo throughout Rhode Island’s coast this summer, as in years past: “Whose beach is it, anyway?”
Disputes about beach rights and access to the shore are not confined to the summer, but are certainly prevalent in beach weather.
As I was writing this article, I heard from a South County waterfront property owner over alleged interference with beach rights and dock rights.
And recently, Rhode Island’s Supreme Court delivered an answer to the “whose beach” question for Misquamicut residents and beachgoers, in a ruling with statewide significance.
In dispute in Misquamicut was the right of the public to use and enjoy an approximately two-mile-long stretch of beach, 80 to 120 feet deep — approximately 24 acres. That is a lot of beach.
Private property owners claimed the disputed area was a part of their beachfront lots, while the public claimed a right of access based on a 1909 recorded plat.
The state sued the current beachfront landowners on behalf of the public to affirm public access to the disputed beach, and numerous environmental and other groups filed briefs in the litigation.
At issue was a 1909 plat showing lots which, on the seaward side, also showed a line labeled “line of foot of bank,” and beyond that an area labeled “beach,” which led to the Atlantic Ocean.
The state claimed the “line of foot of bank” was the boundary of the lots, and the property owners claimed the mean high tide line was their property boundary.
In essence, the property owners claimed the beach was theirs and the state claimed the beach had been “dedicated to the public” by the recorded plat.
In support of its case, the state noted that the plat had nine labeled rights of ways from Atlantic Avenue to the beach, arguing that this reinforced that the beach area was intended to be public.
The property owners argued these rights of way were to allow the public to get to the mean high tide line, where public use is permitted.
In a meticulous opinion, Superior Court Judge Brian Stern, the trial judge, found that the 1909 plat did not manifest an intention on the part of the developers to dedicate the beach area to the public, and that the plat was not ambiguous in this regard. The judge also found that, had the 1909 plat been ambiguous, such things as the early deed conveyances supported a finding that there was no intent to dedicate this valuable property to the public.
In a careful analysis, the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld the trial court decision and agreed with its reasoning.
The careful scrutiny in this case, deliberating the intersection of private property rights and public property rights, will guide future questions in our state about public access versus private rights at the shore.
Some see this as a case where the public lost or where waterfront property owners won. But that may miss the point.
From my perspective, the winners here were Rhode Islanders, beachgoers and waterfront property owners alike. The reason is that these two decisions continue a clear and consistent pattern of our Rhode Island courts balancing the interests of public and private rights at the shore since the early 1800s.
These decisions over the years have been thoughtful, careful and thorough. Judges rendering these rulings have recognized that, in the Ocean State, public access to and use of the waterfront are extremely important to our citizens for fisheries, commerce, navigation and recreation. Judges have also recognized the importance of private property rights to property owners, as they are the underpinning of our freedom and free-enterprise economy.
As long as courts are seeking this balance, as surely as the tide ebbs and flows, public and private rights at the shore will be preserved.
John M. Boehnert practices real estate and environmental law in Providence. His most recent book is “Buying, Owning and Selling Rhode Island Waterfront and Water View Property.”