NARRAGANSETT — The East Jerusalem area of Matunuck is sometimes called a hidden JEM, and it’s easy to see why: beautiful beach, glorious sunshine, view of the ferry leaving from Galilee.
But one particular section of the beach tarnishes, according to some neighbors, the JEM. And he also has a nickname, although this could not be printed in a family newspaper. The situation began about a month ago, when neighbors said a landlord had set up a row of chairs, sticks and other objects to mark off a rectangular stretch of beach in front of a home on Succotash Road as private. . Someone responded by scribbling on one of the chairs: “Welcome to (Anatomical Insult To Describe Mean Person) Beach. Do not enter!”
Laurie Bates and Rex Santerre can see (Anatomical Insult To Describe Mean Person) Beach from their house next door. They are not the ones who installed the deckchairs or who scribbled vulgarity on them. But they don’t like the barrier of chairs either. Like others in the area, they consider it unsightly and without neighbors.
“It just put a cloud over the neighborhood,” said Bates, a retired economics professor whose home is called Equilibrium and whose dog is called Pax.
Neither balance nor peace has been on the agenda in some cases after a new law improving the public’s right of access to shore was passed in Rhode Island. As any economics professor could tell you, it’s not clear whether correlation equals causation, and the plural of anecdote is not given. It’s hard to say if there are more of these kinds of shore issues, more complaints about them, more attention, or some combination.
What is certainly the case, however, is that cities and state regulators are working on an altered landscape along the shoreline, all during the most popular time of year to travel there and the period the most common of the year to discuss it. The resulting disputes, such as the nickname of a certain beach, have not always been worthy of printing in a family newspaper. But they resolve bit by bit — often in favor of increased access, unless a federal lawsuit opposes it.
The new law gives people the right to shore access if they are no more than 10 feet above the recognizable high tide line.
The issues that have arisen since its passage this summer have varied, but have occasionally involved landowners installing new barriers at or near the new 10ft limit. The beach chairs next to Bates’ house didn’t seem to block the new public access area, at least where the tide was on a recent weekday. Within days of the Globe’s visit, the chairs had been moved closer to the dunes, Bates said.
In other cases, signage and barriers have unambiguously sought to block the type of access permitted by law. This includes legacy signs such as “private beach on wet sand”, which is no longer the case under the law (and some would say never was).
And finally, some beachgoers have argued with landlords over what the law actually means.
For example, in Westerly recently, Dunns Corners resident Dan Roy tried to take advantage of the new law by driving to Fenway Beach in the Weekapaug Fire District. A security guard told him on several visits, including a recent Friday, that he was not allowed to be there. Even though he was within 10 feet of the recognizable high tide line, the new law was to transit the shore, not stay, Roy said, the guard told him.
Roy begged to delay. The State Constitution enshrines rights including, but not limited to, passage, seaweed collection, fishing and swimming. On Friday, Roy himself called the police, and they sided with him. He could stay. What really surprised him, Roy said, was that a safety officer in a state-created fire district was telling him otherwise.
“It’s really not fair,” Roy said.
The Weekapaug Fire District did not respond to a request for comment.
Roy then contacted Westerly Town manager Shawn Lacey. Lacey was among a group of South County city officials who recently met with the state’s Coastal Resource Management Board to discuss how the new law should be interpreted and applied. The result: People can indeed put down a towel and a chair, or even throw a Frisbee, if they’re below the 10-foot boundary line.
“You can do everything you normally would on the beach in that 10-foot window,” Lacey said in an interview.
CRMC spokeswoman Laura Dwyer agreed that it is not merely a law permitting passage. People can put down a towel and a chair and stay. That’s partly because the law itself says it should be “liberally interpreted,” Dwyer said.
The law itself does not allow people to go onto lawns or use private beach cabanas and chairs. And in general, everyone should try to be courteous and respectful as people work through the new law, Dwyer said. CRMC is working to educate the public about the new law, an effort that is still under development.
“The goal is to continue this conversation with all groups,” Dwyer said.
Other problems have arisen in North Kingstown, where signs for the town beach – in the new 10ft public access zone – have been erected for a time, and at Green Hill Beach in South Kingstown, where someone would have put up a sign directly on the rack line using the Coast Guard emblem.
False flagging has always been a problem, but it seems to be getting extra attention now — likely because the problem itself is growing and awareness about it is growing too, said Cate Brown, an access advocate. down whose friend saw the sign in South Kingstown. .
The owners “really tried to push harder to get their line in the sand,” Brown said.
Elsewhere, police have raised the theory that the new law will cause problems while everyone understands what it means. In a high-profile incident in Middletown, a would-be shoreline visitor stepped on a man’s lawn after being blocked by bushes from getting to the end of a public access path. Cheyne Cousens then had a rude argument with the owner who tried to kick him off the lawn (the lawns are not included in the new horizontal public access area). The resulting video Cousens took has gone viral on TikTok.
The body cam footage captured even more angles than the TikTok video.
“Unfortunately, until people understand the new legislation better, we’re going to have some trouble with it,” the officer told the owner in body camera footage.
Cousens was charged with misdemeanor trespass. Cousens said he was just confused about where the access to the coast was, but said he could have handled the situation better. The incident has sparked renewed attention as to why the actual public road next to the property is blocked.
In addition to the trespassing case against Cousens, the coastal access disputes will also be played out in the civil courts, as private owners will take legal action to block it. A hearing is scheduled for September 6 on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, land access advocates are planning another appearance of an airplane banner making their case, in a back-and-forth air campaign with private owners who have secured their own banner. The last banner should say, “The RI Shore is still not private.”
One of the places this plane might be visible from is Equilibrium, Bates’ home on the beach in East Matunuck.
The house’s name may celebrate the balance, but even Bates and Santerre – also a retired economics professor – don’t completely agree on the new land access law. Bates said in an interview that “property is theft” and that the beach is a public good; Santerre said in a separate interview that he doesn’t think it’s fair to take private property without compensation.
These married professors of economics agree on other coastal points. Neither cares when people sit on the beach in front of their house. And they agree that the fence-turned-beach-chair next door had no place in the JEM.
“Why can’t we all enjoy the beach on a nice sunny day?” Bates said.
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