SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Watch your step on Rhode Island’s private beaches. There’s a fine line — if you can find it — where to stand in the sand at a private beach.
Among many shoreline communities, however, this line has different meanings. To mean or not to mean – and it’s actually called the mean average high tide line — describes better the many sides of this controversy.
It covers not just average high tide marks and whether they’re really meaningless when underwater, as often they are, but more importantly about changes to a once-rural coastline area now dotted with million-dollar homes and expectations of privacy to match.
“God bless if you can go to the end point to where the average mean high tide line is over 18.6 years,” exclaimed State Rep. Blake Filippi, who represents Block Island, Charlestown and parts of South Kingstown and Westerly.
And one Connecticut resident, who is also a lawyer, drew a line in the sand at her South Kingstown property, neighbors said, by posting a security guard starting Memorial Day to keep her private beachfront free of squatters.
To some this mark tells them when anyone on a private beach can stand, swim, park beach chairs or put up an umbrella. To beachfront property owners it’s really about an influx of people crossing a line in sand and using beaches that are part of private property of expensive homes.
“It is not all theirs, that is just not true,” said Filippi about having a private beach with no public access or use. “The state constitution says people have a right to be on these beach areas no matter the property deeds.”
Established Rhode Island law requires a tricky calculation of measuring high-tide marks for 18.6 years to find the average on any spot of sand. But the official survey maps pinpointing those areas are not usually in visitors’ beach bags with sunblock, hats and books.
Filippi recommends they carry a copy of the Rhode Island Constitution to flash their rights to anyone stopping them on a private beach while also staying near the waterline. The state Coastal Resources Management Agency, which works to preserve and protect the shore line, recommends the public go closest to the waterline on any private beach.
Like the changing tides, though, a core issue here actually lies with change in South County’s beachfront areas - both in development, erosion and use.
In South County, upscale development continues of expensive – sometimes large – homes for summer or permanent residences in Charlestown, South Kingstown and Narragansett. This invites the inevitable collision between old customs and new expectations among long-time and new residents, said coastal observers, homeowners and local officials.
For instance, regardless what the state constitution says, some unknowing homeowners with beachfront deeded rights maintain they don’t mind walkers, but having people hang out on their sand is another matter.
Coupled with this is the ongoing beach erosion that changes the high tide mark over the years, putting it under water. Clearly, the constitution authors and state Supreme Court rulings did not intend for public access to drown, said Filippi and CRMC officials.
This demarcation was tested recently at a private beach along a dirt, pot-holed road – adjacent to Charlestown Town Beach and running into South Kingstown.
Many million-dollar homes there, mirroring Long Island’s Hamptons, are easy get-away vacation spots for nearby Nutmeggers coming easily from Connecticut and New Yorkers who find the Ocean State sporting more reasonable prices despite the distance.
“They (homeowners with deeded beach ownership) decided that sitting down is trespassing and standing up and walking is not,” said Scott Keeley of Charlestown, noting that a foreboding sign, “No Trespassing – Private Property” near Charlestown Town Beach prompted him to challenge that claim last week.
He was arrested, but charges were later dropped, because there was no proof he violated the elusive average high-water mark. To further make his point, he’s encouraging friends and supporters to join him July 6 for another visit to test of state law.
Keeley said he wants the constitutional provision followed. “Here you have a few wealthy individuals who come down here…Does that now mean we have some wealthy individuals telling us what parts of our constitution we can part take in?” he asked.
In recent interviews with homeowners in the area where Keeley pushed his point, constitutional questions took a back seat to complaints about overcrowding at the Charlestown Town Beach and spillover – that once didn’t happen – to beachfront properties located just several yards away and just over the South Kingstown town line.
Homeowners, however, would not give their names, fearing reprisal from vocal opponents testing the waters for private beach access.
Several owners claimed the overcrowding comes from nearby Charlestown marina and individual private homes that both now sell parking spaces to tourists and others going to that beach, especially when the town beach lot is full.
“People come out here, they put up a 9-foot-by-9-foot tent, with a blanket and where are you supposed to sit?” said one homeowner of 41 years. Overcrowding each year leads these beach-goers to stray farther from boundaries of the town beach, she added.
“It wasn’t that way years ago and it all has just grown,” she said. Seeking to help, South Kingstown officials said that its residents can call them with any complaints of excess drifting of beach-goers from Charlestown Town Beach.
“I am happy to address with the Town of Charlestown any specific problems,” said Robert Zarnetske, town manager of South Kingstown
Another property owner far down the beach road said, “It’s like our front yard,” pointing out that, “walking by is fine, but parking yourself there is another matter.” Beachfront congestion, he added, is more a problem closer to Charlestown Town Beach.
One Connecticut owner, who also opposed squatters, said he was never told by local real estate brokers about any constitutional exceptions to him owning all the beachfront property.
These points, though, lose distinctions with the advocates for access.
“It’s being done by these few wealthy land owners who can afford a security guard…so that they can tell us what our rights are,” said a determined Keeley who was first approached by the security guard hired by that one homeowner to keep watch for trespassers.
That owner did not return repeated calls for comment about the guard or those intruding on her beach.
A few doors away, another homeowner, also with a house valued at more than $1 million, commented, “We’re paying an extraordinary amount of money in taxes and we can’t even use our beaches.”