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Collecting seaweed to make a point about beach access in R.I.

Testing the limits of the Rhode Island Constitution, Scott Keeley has organized a seaweed collection day at Charlestown Town Beach — and is offering special totes to drive his point home

Charlestown's town beach, Charlestown, R.I.
Charlestown's town beach, Charlestown, R.I.Paul Kandarian for The Boston Globe

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — His arrest on the beach on a June day two years ago earned him a nickname: The seaweed collector.

Now, Scott Keeley is embracing the moniker, with swag and a public event to go along with it. Keeley, who lives in Charlestown, ordered up 1,000 tote bags emblazoned with the word “SEAWEED” and an illustration of the aquatic vegetation. The other side has a section of the Rhode Island Constitution guaranteeing people the right to do certain activities along the shore, including — you guessed it — collecting seaweed. He’s selling them for 15 bucks a pop, with some of the proceeds going toward beach access initiatives.

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And at 10 a.m. on June 26, he’s planning a seaweed collection day starting at Charlestown Town Beach to prove a point that advocates like him have been pressing for years: The shore belongs to everyone, not just private homeowners.

“There’s more of us than there are of them,” Keeley said.

Keeley said the tote bags will be on sale on his website, ShorelineRights.org, for pre-order as soon as Friday. They’re in transit right now, and he’s hoping they arrive in time for the event on June 26.

The collectors will start at the town beach but won’t be deterred by “private beach” signs, including in the very area he was arrested two years ago. A similar pro-access event after Keeley’s arrest drew about 100 people.

Scott Keeley's seaweed collection bags drive home the fact that the state's constitution allows residents to access certain parts of the Rhode Island shoreline.
Scott Keeley's seaweed collection bags drive home the fact that the state's constitution allows residents to access certain parts of the Rhode Island shoreline. Scott Keeley
Scott Keeley's seaweed collection bags.
Scott Keeley's seaweed collection bags.Scott Keeley

The issue of beach access is ever present in the Ocean State, but has taken on renewed prominence in the last few years, due at least in some part to Keeley’s arrest in June 2019. He was collecting seaweed on the beach just east of Charlestown Town Beach. Beachfront property owners had hired a security guard to tell people like Keeley to move along.

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Keeley — who acknowledged he was there to make a point about beach access, but said he really did want seaweed to fertilize his garden — said he had every right to be there. South Kingstown police showed up and arrested him. Trespassing charges were dropped. He sued the town and settled for $25,000.

Two years later, Keeley says things are still pretty bad, with private homeowners along the beach putting up signs saying the beach is private. Some people used COVID as an excuse, Keeley said. One sign said the beach was private down to the “wet sand.” Keeley said. He now brings a spray bottle with him.

Rhode Island law says people have the right to access the shore to do things like fish and swim and walk and collect seaweed. Different people have different interpretations about where those rights begin and end, what can be done on either side, and how that line can even be measured. A state Supreme Court case called the Ibbison decision fixed the boundary between private property rights and public shoreline access at the mean high tide line. That is not one static spot visible to the naked eye on a particular day, but instead an average of the high tide measured over a 18.6-year cycle.

Some private homeowners claim they’ve had their properties surveyed and the line actually now extends out into the water, at all times, meaning they could eject anyone they want to. Critics say that’s legally and geologically impossible.

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Private property owners are more reluctant to speak out publicly than beach-access advocates, but privately, some of them have said they have no problem with people walking along what they consider their property — it’s stopping and setting up towels or chairs, or leaving dirty diapers and beer cans, that they’re concerned about.

State Representatives Terri Cortvriend and Blake Filippi have proposed legislation that would decriminalize trespassing along a 10-foot swath from the most recent high tide line, but it did not pass. Instead, Cortvriend said, the House is gearing up to convene a study commission, which will include 12 members representing everyone’s interests.

“It has people on both sides of the issue in attendance,” Cortvriend said.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.