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The Friends of the Waterfront (FOW), the Newport-based “watchdog of the waterfront,” wrote this week to the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Craven to express FOW’s strong support for the passage House Bill 8055, which would protect the right of public access to the shoreline by bringing much-needed clarity and certainty to the physical extent of those rights.

Among the oldest and most cherished rights of all Rhode Islanders are the “rights of fishery, and privileges of the shore” enshrined in the Rhode Island Constitution, and which originated in the 1663 Rhode Island Charter granted by King Charles II.  Unfortunately, in recent times, an overly-technical court decision interpreting the extent of the public’s rights along the shore, along with changing shoreline conditions and ever-increasing development, has resulted in confusion, conflicts among users, inconsistent enforcement, and unwarranted prosecutions of citizens trying to exercise these very rights. 

This past March, a House Special Legislative Commission on lateral shoreline access issued its report and recommendations, the results of which are reflected in H 8055, now pending before the Judiciary Committee.  The Commission, led by Representative Terri Cortvriend of Middletown, included members from the full range of competing shore interests and users as well as experts in coastal law, policy and science.  The Commission achieved a common-sense consensus: that the “Mean High Water Line” boundary is obsolete and unenforceable, and that it should be replaced by an easily recognizable, observable and traditional reference, the “Recognizable High Tide Line,” along with an adequate landward extension of the right to allow dry lateral shoreline access throughout the normal tidal range.  Given the strength of views on all sides of shoreline issues, attaining this consensus was a remarkable achievement, and we thank the Commission members for their work.

In the letter, FOW Board Member Tom Gibson of Newport wrote: “The General Assembly now has an opportunity to end years of chaos and confusion at the shoreline and to restore the historic extent of the public’s rights.”  Gibson urged the House Judiciary Committee to favorably report the bill to the full RI House when the Committee meets on Thursday, and that the bill “then swiftly be brought before the General Assembly for passage in this session.” 

The President of Friends of the Waterfront, Johanna Vietry, added: “We appreciate the support and the work of the Commission, and its Chair, Terri Cortvriend.  We are also grateful for the leadership and support of House Judiciary Chair Robert Craven, as well as the support of Representative Lauren Carson of Newport, a co-sponsor who works tirelessly on issues that matter to FOW. We call on the Rhode Island House to pass the bill once it clears the Judiciary Committee, and for the Rhode Island Senate to then take up H 8055 this session so that Governor McKee can sign it into law.”

Friends of the Waterfront (FOW) is a grass roots 501(c) (3) non-profit organization founded in 1983 by concerned Newport, Rhode Island citizens to insure continued public access to the Newport harbor front at a time when developers threatened to turn public access to private and to block nearly all access to the waterfront. These enduring public access pathways can be traced back to the colonial era. www.newportwaterfront.org

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