House OKs Cortvriend bill to preserve public rights of way

 

STATE HOUSE – The House of Representatives today approved legislation sponsored by Rep. Terri Cortvriend to help cities and towns affordably preserve public access paths and trails.

The legislation (2024-H 7645A) allows municipalities to abandon roads or paths they no longer wish to maintain, but establish easements on them that maintain the public’s access rights. The process would be called “qualified abandonment,” and would give municipalities a new middle option between responsibility for maintaining the road or path, and fully abandoning it.

The easement would mean that no matter what happens with the path — whether abutting property owners wish to purchase it, or it remains abandoned — the public’s right to use it for walking, biking or access to a place such as a nature preserve or shoreline would remain legally intact.

“Public access to nature has long been imperiled in Rhode Island by a lack of specific laws protecting it,” said Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), who championed the 2023 legislation that established a legal definition of the public area of the shoreline in Rhode Island. “Old roads and paths that are enjoyed by the public are often the subject of disputes when property changes hands or the area becomes more developed. This legislation will give cities and towns a means to preserve the public’s use of such places when the town would otherwise abandon them. Instead of having two choices — abandonment or being responsible for maintaining the road — it will give them a third choice of abandoning it but preserving the public’s right to keep using it for recreation. That designation will legally establish public access and head off any future disputes about it.”

The legislation (2024-H 7645A) requires the city or town council to vote to abandon the roadway or trail but retain the public easement on it. The legislation stipulates that if qualified abandonment is established, the municipality must remove any gates, bars or other obstructions to the roadway or path. The bill would not apply retroactively to roads abandoned prior to its adoption.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Victoria Gu (D-Dist. 38, Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown) is sponsoring companion legislation (2024-S 2641).

The legislation could be particularly helpful in protecting public access to Rhode Island’s shoreline at a time when sea level rise and frequent flooding is prompting cities and towns to consider abandoning low-lying coastal roads.

“This bill is a great step forward,” said Michael Rubin, retired Rhode Island assistant attorney general and longtime coastal advocate. “It embodies the concept of doing no harm. Too often when towns abandon roads it harms the public by reducing access. This bill will allow those roads to continue to serve recreation and access to our natural resources.”

 

 

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