NARRAGANSETT – The Jerusalem-East Matunuck area is sometimes referred to as the hidden JEM, and it’s easy to see why: beautiful beach, bright sunshine, view of the ferry that departs from the Galilee.
But a certain stretch of beach clouds the JEM, according to some neighbors. And it also has a nickname, although it cannot be printed in a family newspaper. The situation began about a month ago when neighbors said a property owner had set out a number of chairs, sticks and other items to demarcate a rectangular section of beach in front of a house 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 her house next door. They’re not the ones who put up the beach chairs or scrawled the vulgarity on them. But they don’t like the chair barrier either. Like others in the area, they find it unsightly and unneighborly.
“It just put a fog on the neighborhood,” said Bates, a retired economics professor whose house is named Equilibrium and whose dog is named Pax.
Neither balance nor peace were the order of the day in some cases after Rhode Island passed new legislation improving the public’s right to shore access. As any economics professor could tell you, it’s not clear that correlation equals causation, and the plural of anecdote isn’t data. It’s hard to say if there are more of these types of coastal issues, more complaints about them, more attention, or a combination of the two.
What is certainly the case, however, is that cities and state regulators are working through a changed landscape along the coast, and all at the time of year when it’s most likely to get there and argue about it the most. The resulting disputes, such as the nickname of a particular beach, were not always suitable for reprint in a family newspaper. But they are gradually being resolved — often in favor of greater access, unless a federal lawsuit stands in the way.
The new law gives people the right to enter the shore if they are no more than 10 feet above the discernible high tide line.
Issues that have arisen Since passage this summer, the barriers have changed, but sometimes property owners have had to erect new barriers at or near the new 10-foot limit. The chairs on the beach next to Bates’s house didn’t seem to block the new public area, at least not where there was high tide on a weekday. A few days after the Globe’s visit, the chairs were moved closer to the dunes, Bates said.
In other cases, signage and barriers have clearly attempted to block access that the law allows. This includes old signs like “private beach until wet sand,” which by law is no longer the case (and never was, some would argue).
And finally some Beachgoers get into arguments with property owners about what the law actually means.
In Westerly, for example, Dunns Corners resident Dan Roy recently attempted to take advantage of the new law by walking to the Weekapaug Fire District’s Fenway Beach. A security guard told him on several visits, including on a Friday, that he was not allowed to be there. Even if he was less than 10 feet from the discernible tide line, the new law called for crossing the bank and not staying there, Roy said the watchman told him.
Roy disagreed. The state’s constitution enshrines rights, including: but not limited to, passage, collecting seaweed, 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 security officer in a state-created fire district told him otherwise.
“That’s really not right,” Roy said.
The Weekapaug Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Roy later contacted Westerly City Manager Shawn Lacey. Lacey was among a group of South County city officials who recently met with the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council to discuss how the new law should be interpreted and enforced. The result: People can actually put down a towel and a chair or even throw a Frisbee around when they’re below the 10-foot limit.
“In that 10-foot window, you can do anything you would normally do on the beach,” Lacey said in an interview.
CRMC spokeswoman Laura Dwyer agreed not just a law that allows passage. People can put a towel and a chair and stay. That’s partly because the law itself dictates that “generously laid out‘ Dwyer said.
The law itself does not allow people to step on lawns or use private cabanas and beach chairs. And in general, everyone should try to be polite and respectful as people work their way through the new law, Dwyer said. CRMC is working to educate the public about the new law, an effort that is still in development.
“The goal is to continue this conversation with all groups,” Dwyer said.
Other problems emerged at North Kingstown, where for a time there were signs on the town beach — within the new 10-foot public zone — and at Green Hill Beach in South Kingstown, where reports said someone had put a sign right there with the wreck line the Coast Guard emblem.
Incorrect signage has always been a problem, but now it seems to be getting special attention — likely because the problem itself is growing and awareness is growing, said Cate Brown, a land access advocate whose friend saw the sign in South Kingstown.
Property owners have “really tried to screw up their line even more,” Brown said.
Elsewhere, police have theorized that while everyone understands what it means, the new law will cause problems. In one well-publicized incident in Middletown, a potential visitor to the shore, stepped onto a man’s lawn after bushes prevented him from getting to the end of a public access path. Cheyne Cousens then got into an obscene argument with the property owner, who tried to evict him from the lawn (lawns are not part of the new horizontal public access zone). Cousens recorded the resulting video went viral on TikTok.
Body camera footage captured even more angles than the TikTok video.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to have issues with this until people better understand the new legislation,” the officer told the owner in the body camera footage.
Cousens was charged with trespassing. Cousens said he was simply confused as to where the land access was but said he could have managed the situation better. The incident has drawn renewed attention to why the actual public walkway adjacent to the property is blocked.
In addition to Cousens’ trespassing case, land access disputes are also fought in civil courts Private owners sue for closure. A hearing on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit is scheduled for September 6.
Meanwhile, land access advocates are planning another appearance of an airplane banner to present their arguments, as part of a back-and-forth air campaign with private property owners who got their own banner. The latest banner is expected to read, “The RI Shore Is Still Not Private.”
One of the places this plane might be visible from is Equilibrium, Bates’ home on East Matunuck Beach.
The house’s name may celebrate balance, but even Bates and Santerre — also a retired economics professor — don’t quite 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 didn’t think it was right to take over private property without compensation.
These married economics professors agree on other coastal issues. Neither of them mind if people line up on the beach in front of their house. And they agree that the beach chair fence next door had no place in the JEM.
“Why can’t we all enjoy the beach on a nice, sunny day?” Bates said.