As property values increase in coastal Rhode Island and residents of other states purchase beachside homes as retirement or vacation properties, the long-standing conflicts over public beach access in the state will continue to worsen. Wealthy landowners and developers of luxury properties have a financial incentive to restrict public access to beaches in order to advertise their properties as more exclusive. Although the vast majority of beaches and land immediately adjacent to the coastline are public property, without public access from the road, residents and visitors have practically no way to use the public beaches. A recently published news report discusses a legal battle over beach access in Westerly, Rhode Island, specifically noting how the discovery of a historical survey map could turn the tide of the battle in favor of public beach access.
According to the report, the beach known as Quonochontaug, is one of the most beautiful beaches in the state. As beautiful as the beach is, there is currently no public access to the shore. Developers have purchased all of the land adjacent to the beach and blocked any public paths leading to the shore, creating what amounts to a private beach for their residents and customers. The article notes that one 50-foot wide trail that was previously used as public access has been blocked with a fence and is not currently usable. An attorney fighting for public access to the beach has been on a mission to prove that the fenced-off trail does not belong to the adjacent property owners and is in fact a public pathway that should remain passable to allow anyone to access the beautiful beach.
In an effort to make his case, the attorney combed through public historical documents to support his case. In the basement document repository of the Westerly town hall, the attorney found a document from 1939 known as a plat map that might prove his case. Plat maps are scale drawings of land that are approved and filed with the state and municipality to show the ownership and characteristics of the land as it is being developed. In the 1939 plat map that was prepared before the property surrounding Quonochontaug was developed, the 50-foot wide section of land was designated as a public road. According to the attorney quoted in the article, that designation has not been changed in the decades since the map was made, and the path remains public. If the attorney’s arguments are accepted by the state Coastal Resources Management Council, the fencing will need to be removed, and public access to the beach can be restored.