Published December 31. 2013 4:00AM Updated December 31. 2013 9:08AM
At a glance, it sure looks like the extensive sea wall work Taylor Swift is doing along the Watch Hill beachfront is encroaching on what has traditionally been considered the public beach.
For many years, beachgoers have been laying their towels and blankets in front of a vertical cement wall at the bottom of the high cliff over which Swift's mansion grandly presides.
Now, in accordance with a state permit from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, there is a fresh line of stone rip rap against the concrete, taking up a small strip of sandy beach and impeding some access along the wall, which you could walk next to before, even when the tide was up.
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.
The geologist said she would do more research on the Watch Hill mean tide line, but the submission by Swift's engineers indicate a formal calculation was done and is largely correct.
The Rhode Island Constitution does, however, grant the public the right to walk along the shoreline, to fish and swim.
My education about how little of the beach in Watch Hill may be public was part of a general discussion with helpful CRMC officials, who said Monday that all the work being done at the Swift property is in compliance with permits issued late last year.
The CRMC issued the permit to allow Swift to reinforce the stone concrete wall with bigger stones. A CRMC spokesperson said some of those stones put up against the concrete wall were already on the beachfront, loose, and others were brought to the site.
I also sent along to the CRMC a picture a reader shared with me. It showed a big earth moving machine working in front of Swift's concrete wall, in the water.
Turns out, the CRMC spokesperson said, the box in the permission form granted to Swift for work on her sea wall, the box that says you can't have big equipment working in the water, was not checked. It also looks like the machine was on her property.
I had always heard that the CRMC was ruthless in not granting permission to waterfront property owners to do much, but I got the impression Monday they are practically easygoing.
I also heard Monday from an attorney for Cherenzia Excavation of Pawcatuck, the company doing the work for Swift, who was angry about a suggestion in a column Sunday that the town should have required its own permit for the work.
He noted that the engineers were responsible for getting permits, and indeed they got the CRMC permits they needed.
The lawyer also complained the column, which said big cranes could be seen lifting rocks out of the ocean, made it sound like they were mining rocks from the ocean when in fact they've been importing them from a quarry.
He noted that the distance of the mean high water mark from the cement wall would suggest that the rocks were being moved on Swift's own property, even if they are in the water.
In all of my conversations Monday about the extensive work being done on the Swift property - the CRMC permit estimated it is costing $2 million - no one gave me what I would consider a good explanation for why the town has not required a building permit, which was the substance of the first column.
The lawyer for Cherenzia suggested that the construction the CRMC application calls "128 linear feet of new retaining wall" a concrete structure 3 ½ feet tall, about half way up the cliff, should be considered a part of the existing sea wall. And the town has not required permits for sea wall work, he said.
And yet even the town building official told me last week any new wall more than 32 inches tall and holding certain material should be subject to building permits by the town.
I wonder why any town resident who complies with the rules, pays for a building permit and thereby subjects the new construction to an increased tax assessment, should not be bothered that no town permit was required for a $2 million project, maybe one of the largest construction projects in town right now. And, if there is no construction permit from the town, what do you make of the construction trailer on the lawn, in a neighborhood where trailers would not usually be welcome?
I was hoping Michelle Buck, the Westerly town manager, could better explain why no town permit was issued. After all, you would need a town permit to build a waterfront house, even if the CRMC had given approval.
But Buck, after saying she didn't want to debate the topic, hung up on me Monday.
In that light, the folks at CRMC are practically pussycats.
This is the opinion of David Collins