Rhode Island Beach Access Restricted – Judge Rules in Favor of Landowners

As the sun sets on another summer in the Ocean State, a Superior Court judge has ruled that next summers’ beach won’t be quite as wide. The case involved a scenario all too familiar—and generally all too confusing for beachgoers in New England—signs pounded into open stretches of beach reading, “Private Beach – No Trespassing”.

New Englanders can thank our storied colonial history for the patchwork of laws governing public access to coastal beaches. This post will save for another day an analysis of each state’s beach access rights, as the recent case near Misquamicut Beach turns more on the issue of whether or not a dedicated easement existed rather than pure public beach access rights.  

On behalf of the beachgoers and in defense of public access, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin filed suit against seven property owners (ultimately having to add 14 more). The AG argued that over 100 years ago, the original owners of a string of beach-front parcels (stretching east of Misquamicut State Beach to the Weekapaug Beachway) had dedicated a two mile expanse to public use. If true, the fences, the “No Trespass signs”, and the repeated calls to the police regarding the “trespassers” amount to private and public nuisance. 

In response, the defendant landowners argued no such easement existed. To substantiate this claim, the defendants contended that if the original landowners had intended to dedicate their beach to a public purpose, they would have used exact legal language (as they did in other portions of their plot map), not just the term “beach”. Moreover, all of the original landowners would have signed both the plot map and the accompanying indenture document, not fewer than half. 

After 11 days of hearings (consisting of ten witnesses and over 200 exhibits), Judge Brian Stern reached a decision (which can be found here). He found flaws in the state’s case and ruled in favor of the defense. He based his decision on a number of legal conclusions that can be boiled down into two theories: you cannot give away something you do not have and specific intent must exist for legal rights to be given away. The Attorney General’s office has yet to indicate if it will appeal the decision.