About an hour after my post on Taylor Swift’s wall rehabilitation I saw this column by Tom Mooney in The Providence Journal where the Coastal Resources Management Council’s* Laura Dwyer gives a pretty definitive answer about any criticism of Swift for building a wall on her property.
Dwyer said the CRMC expected the permit applications from such an international celebrity would draw attention.
“Our executive director [Grover Fugate] had a feeling this was going to happen, so doing more than his usual due diligence, he went to the site a number of times, just so he had a good understanding of the present conditions, what they wanted to do, and in order to feel comfortable that this was all under ‘maintenance’ of the seawall.”
Swift’s hard-working publicist points us to another story by The Day‘s David Collins, the writer who kicked off the whole hullabaloo. Here’s the key bit:
Turns out, though, Swift and her engineers suggest in their application to the CRMC, the old cement wall is well above the mean high water mark, the effective property line for oceanfront land.
In fact, the plans indicate Swift’s property extends in some places up to 40 feet beyond the concrete wall.
And if you were to extrapolate from that line, along the beach, it would mean much of the big wide sandy beachfront the public enjoys every summer in Watch Hill is above mean high water and owned by the adjacent homeowners.
This seems counterintuitive because it’s not what people usually think of as the high tide line, the part of the beach where a “wet line” is left as the tide goes in and out.
I learned some of this from a CRMC geologist Monday who explained that the legal definition of mean high water in Rhode Island comes from a very specific court case and involves complex calculations unrelated to the vagaries of ocean tides on a beach or the classic “wet line” left behind.
Unless I’ve got my facts wrong, the case in question was in the Rhode Island Supreme Court, State v. Ibbison (1982); where a property owner had fishermen arrested for trespassing. The fishermen had figured that the high water mark (usually marked by seaweed) was public property. The property owner asserted that the mean high tide mark was. The property owner was ruled correct, but the arrest was ruled to be unfounded, because up until Ibbison, there was no standard definition for what the “shore” was. And thus for the last 30 years the mean high tide mark is our standard (which has left large portions of public property underwater). (Information on Ibbison from page 116 of The Rhode Island State Constitution by Patrick Conley and Robert Flanders, Jr.)
So what does all this mean for Swift? Well, it means she’s in the right and clear, that David Collins can’t necessarily eyeball “mean high tide,” that the CRMC does their due diligence, and that I’ve once again poked my finger in someone’s eye who’s much bigger then me without genuine cause (the sad thing is that I know about Ibbison since my 11 Awesome Things about RI post, Collins didn’t have that benefit).
However, it also points to the problem with using undefined and vague words when trying to protect rights in our Constitution. I mean theoretically, if you have the constitutional right to gather seaweed from the “shore” that same “shore” should extend to the highest extent of seaweed. If you have to swim out to gather your seaweed, I’m not sure that should be counted as “shore.” Anyhow, defining “shore” as equivalent to “high water mark” not “mean high water mark” is a constitutional change (or a judicial one, but it’s hard to roll back 30 years of judicial interpretation), and that’s really up to the voters.
So yeah, if you were hoping to use this little episode to nurse your weirdly deep and inexhaustible hatred of Taylor Swift, then you’ll have to find some other reason.
*Edit: An earlier version of this post referred to the final “C” in CRMC as “Commission” rather than “Council”