PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s shoreline regulator and other groups are starting work this month on a project to improve the state’s coastal access, funded by a $206,300 federal grant.
US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse announced the grant Wednesday. It’ll bring together the state Coastal Resources Management Council with the Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the consulting nonprofit Impact by Design.
Under the grant, the CRMC and its partners will be able to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive plan to manage shoreline access.
Rhode Island right now has more than 230 state-designated rights-of-way to the shore, or properties where the public has a right to get to the coastal areas of the state. The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council designates, but doesn’t own, those rights-of-way.
But its goal is to have one for every mile of coastline in the state, leaving it more than 100 short of this ambitious target. And even when rights-of-way are designated, they can get blocked, either by malfeasance or neglect.
With the competitive grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CRMC and its partners are going to gather information from Rhode Island communities about what they need and want on shoreline access, and information on barriers to getting there. That “needs assessment” will be led by Impact by Design. That will be followed by a long-term goal of a five-year management plan.
“In the meantime, I think this is going to really help us fine-tune our approach,” said Laura Dwyer, spokeswoman for the CRMC. “Because it’s not about what we think people need — they’re going to tell us what they need and what they want.”
Talking about coastal regulation gets into the weeds very quickly, but basically CRMC is going to model this shoreline access effort on the regulatory tool called the SAMP, or Special Area Management Plan. (If you’re around CRMC long enough you’ll start hearing a lot about the Ocean SAMP or the Narragansett Bay SAMP, which guide agency decision-making in those areas.) This one will be a PSAMP, or Public Shoreline Access Management Plan.
One part of the effort is going to be educating people about the process by which rights-of-way are designated, which goes through a CRMC subcommittee. Figuring out what people need, talking to people involved in the issue of shore access, and doing public education is going to take about a year to a year and a half, with the writing of the PSAMP after that. The funding is for the first part on gathering information, but there isn’t yet funding to develop the PSAMP.
Rights-of-way are not the only way to get to the shore, of course, and just because something hasn’t been officially designated by the CRMC as a right-of-way doesn’t mean it’s not one — just that it hasn’t been discovered yet. Local towns also designate their own rights-of-way.
Rights-of-way are generally the ends of roads where some planner decades ago sketched out a paper road running perpendicular to and intersecting with the shore. Even if a road was never built there, it still exists on maps and if it’s a public right-of-way — a question that involves a lot of legal legwork — people have the right to use it.
The CRMC is managed by a generally well respected cadre of professional staff whose work goes before a politically elected council that often doesn’t have enough of a quorum to make decisions because of vacancies on the board or member absences. Those decisions can stir controversy on everything from wind power to aquaculture.
The understaffed and underfunded agency still doesn’t have a line item in its budget for things like identifying new rights-of-way. That can lead to frustration from shore access advocates who feel like not enough is being done to protect their constitutionally guaranteed rights. It can make the CRMC a target of criticism — even as people within the agency say they’re dedicated to opening up Rhode Island’s shore.
They point to this grant as evidence of that.
“I hope this reminds people that public shoreline access is important, it’s not going away, and it’s a priority,” Dwyer said.