50 Ways We’ve Saved The Bay: Battle for Black Point and Public Access
by Cindy Sabato, communications projects
Save The Bay’s vision for a fully swimmable, fishable and healthy Narragansett Bay has always included the phrase “accessible to all.” Time and again, we have stepped in to defend Rhode Islanders’ right to the get to the shoreline and to use it as prescribed by the state constitution. We have also worked to protect public access from the barriers of erosion and hardening of the shoreline. But in 1985, we embarked on a heated, five-year battle, at Black Point, against a condominium developer that would help define public access issues in Rhode Island for decades to come.
Black Point is 40 acres of scenic view, footpath and rocky coastline north of Scarborough State Beach in Narragansett. This last stretch of undeveloped shoreline along the western Bay had been used for outdoor recreation for generations. The Rhode Island Constitution guarantees the public’s right to the shoreline. The right to pass over private upland property to get to the shoreline, as had been enjoyed at Black Point for centuries, is commonly granted through “implied dedication,” as demonstrated by the words or conduct of the previous owners of the property, or by a long-standing, uninterrupted, continuous usage by the public, also known as “prescription.”
In 1985, a condominium development threatened to close Black Point’s beloved footpath forever.
The Case for Centuries of Public Access
Save The Bay and our allies presented the Narragansett Town Zoning Board with an abundance of evidence showing long-standing, continuous public access and use of the shoreline at Black Point. Historical articles from local newspapers and the New York Times made it clear that the path had been used by the public since the Civil War. Travel brochures from the turn of the century boasted the pathway’s natural beauty. Historic records referenced the public’s right to the path and provided evidence that the waters off Black Point were protected under state law. In videotaped witness testimony, people recounted their observations of the use of the path over decades. And we presented a petition with signatures of 480 residents objecting to the condominium proposal.
The zoning board agreed with us and required Downing Corp. to maintain public right-of-way along the shoreline and on the path. Upon Downing’s appeal of that decision, Washington County Superior Court sided with the developer. But the court left a door open by identifying the Coastal Resource Management Council as the agency responsible public rights-of-way issues.
Defending a Public Right-of-Way
So we took the fight to CRMC, calling for a hearing to demonstrate long-term public use and implied dedication of right-of-way. The two-step process would take another four years. The Conservation Law Foundation, the Town of Narragansett and Rhode Island Attorney General Jim O’Neil joined us. During increasingly-contentious hearings, we fought through appeals and overturns, emergency moratoriums, contradictory expert testimony—even Downing Corp.’s attempt to cripple Save The Bay by sending letters to our corporate sponsors asking them to reconsider their financial support.
As the case moved before the Rhode Island Superior Court, Gov. Ed DiPrete, encouraged by Save The Bay, announced the state’s intention to buy Black Point for use as a state park, “as a symbol for the fight to ensure shoreline access.” In 1989, the governor made good on his promise and claimed a hard-won victory in one of the greatest public access battles of all time.
“The Black Point case was an emphatic, pro-access outcome that resonated statewide,” said Save The Bay Advocacy Director Topher Hamblett.
A Win for More Than Black Point
The battle for Black Point represented much more than the preservation of a single path or stretch of shoreline; the fight was a clarion call for Rhode Islanders to defend their right to access the Bay, and the victory set a precedent for safeguarding public access that serves us to this day.
In more recent years, some municipalities have tried to discourage the use of the shoreline by fishermen by limiting or eliminating parking, while homeowners and residents have attempted to limit beach access by installing fences and other physical barriers. But the tradition begun in the Black Point era continues, and Save The Bay persists in fighting to preserve public access. We hold fast to stance and the pledge we published in a 1988 newsletter: “The public has enjoyed a longstanding right to shoreline access… and Save The Bay will defend that right from those who want to take it away for only the enjoyment of a select few.”