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Who Maintains the Right to Access Beaches as Coastal Properties are Developed?

Over the last century, the Rhode Island coastline has evolved from large estates used for agricultural and industrial purposes into a vibrant, year-round beach destination. A necessary consequence of this development includes the subdivision of larger parcels into smaller lots for residential and commercial development. As larger beachfront parcels are divided into smaller lots, many properties that once included direct beach access have become landlocked from the coast.

The smaller lots that we see today often include rights of passage or other easements against beachfront properties to ensure that the owners and tenants of the now-landlocked properties maintain the right to access adjacent beaches. Present-day property owners who are fortunate enough to possess a property that directly abuts the coastline often oppose neighboring property owners and tenants using these rights of way to access the beach. The Rhode Island Superior Court recently issued a ruling in a case brought by a semi-oceanfront property owner against their oceanfront neighbor to determine if an easement existed for the plaintiff to cross through the defendant’s property when accessing the beach.

In 1986, the plaintiffs in the recently decided case purchased a lot in Narragansett that was across the street from the defendant’s lot, which directly abutted the beach. According to the purchase agreement and recorded deed for the plaintiff’s transaction, the plaintiffs’ property included an easement, established in 1929, for them to access the beach through the defendant’s property. The plaintiffs used the defendant’s property to access the adjacent beach without issue from 1986 until 2015. In 2015, the defendants constructed a barricade and refused the plaintiffs access to the beach, stating that no easement existed and that the plaintiffs were trespassing by using the defendants’ driveway for beach access.

The plaintiffs filed a suit in the Rhode Island Superior Court, seeking to have the court declare that the plaintiff’s possessed a valid easement for beach access, and for the court to order the defendants to remove the obstruction and allow the plaintiffs to use their driveway to get to the beach. The defendants responded that the plaintiffs never had a valid easement to use their property, and sought to enjoin the plaintiffs from trespassing on their property to access the beach. The defendants’ primary argument in support of their position was that the previous owner of the plaintiffs’ property did not have the right to include an easement in the sale, as the original 1929 easement did not encompass the plaintiff’s property at the time of sale.

The Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. After discussing a long chain of conveyances and subdivisions of the original 1929 property, the Court found that the 1929 easement still existed in 1986 when the plaintiffs purchased the lot and that the plaintiffs continued to enjoy both an express and implied easement to access the beach through the defendants’ property to this day. As a result of the recent decision, the defendants will be forced to remove the barrier from their land, and the plaintiffs (as well as anyone who purchases the lot from them in the future) have the right to cross the defendants’ property to access the beach.

Speak with a Rhode Island Real Estate Layer Today

Although the plaintiffs in this case did establish an easement to cross through the defendants’ property, such is not always the case. Many beachfront property owners are faced with others crossing their property without justification. The existence of a path or trail does not necessarily mean there is an easement, and there may be an easement even if there is a barbed wire fence, guard dogs, and a no-trespassing sign. If you are a coastal Rhode Island property owner with questions about beach access or other easement issues, the experienced Rhode Island real estate attorneys with Bilodeau Capalbo, LLP can help you determine what rights adjacent property owners may have, and take action in court if needed. Our dedicated Rhode Island property attorneys don’t shy away from the detailed forensic investigation that may be needed to prove or disprove the existence of a right-of-way. If you have questions about a Rhode Island easement issue, call us at 401-300-4055 for a free consultation.

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