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Federal judge dismisses property owners’ lawsuit challenging Rhode Island’s new shore access law

US District Court Judge William E. Smith found that the case brought by the Rhode Island Association of Coastal Taxpayers lacked standing in federal court

A group of shore access enthusiasts used a right-of-way to the beach in Westerly.Brian Amaral

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit last week brought by a group of private property owners that had challenged Rhode Island’s new shore access law.

US District Court Judge William E. Smith said in a ruling filed Tuesday that the case brought forward by the Rhode Island Association of Coastal Taxpayers (RIACT) “cannot tie the named Defendants to the constitutional harm allegedly inflicted by the [new shore access law],” so it is “not properly in federal court.”

The new shore access law, which was passed in June by the state’s Generally Assembly, gives Rhode Islanders the right to exercise their constitutional shore privileges, if they are no more than 10 feet inland of the recognizable high tide line — or seaweed line. In drawing this new boundary, the recently passed law rejected the use of what’s called the mean high tide line. The law doesn’t include compensation for adjacent landowners.

Members of RIACT argued the new boundary violates the US Constitution, and filed a lawsuit in July against Attorney General Peter Neronha; Jeffrey Willis, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council; and Terrence Gray, director of the Department of Environmental Management — people whose offices all have roles in carrying out the law.


Under the new law, RIACT argued, members of the public have “trespassed” on their private property.

“For many RIACT members, the Act’s creation of a public beach 10 feet inland of the seaweed line allows the public to access and occupy their private, residential ‘backyard’ areas, and opens their residential life to the constant presence of strangers, destroying privacy and raising safety concerns,” the suit alleged.

On Wednesday, Neronha backed the federal court’s ruling in the matter.

“I applaud Judge Smith’s decision to dismiss a challenge to Rhode Island’s shoreline access law and am pleased that the Court agreed with the State’s position that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue,” Neronha said in a statement. “I remain grateful that the General Assembly codified Rhode Islanders’ constitutional rights to shoreline access into state law, and my Office remains committed to protecting those rights against any legal challenge.”


In a statement to the Globe on Wednesday, Pacific Legal Foundation senior attorney Dave Breemer, who represented RIACT in the lawsuit, said, “RIACT is disappointed in this result, but its members will not give up their constitutional property rights and will now consider alternative legal options.”

Issues have come up since the new shore access law passed in mid-June, including property owners setting up new obstacles at or near the new 10-foot boundary. Beachgoers and property owners have engaged in heated arguments.

In one incident reported by the Globe last month, Westerly resident Dan Roy tried to take advantage of the new law by going to the Weekapaug Fire District’s Fenway Beach. A security guard told him on multiple visits that he wasn’t allowed to be there. Even if he was within 10 feet of the recognizable high tide line, the new law was for transiting the shore, Roy said the guard told him, not sticking around.

But that’s not true: The state’s Constitution enshrines rights including, but not limited to, passage along the shore, collecting seaweed, fishing, and swimming. Roy was right, and when he called police, they sided with him and said that he could stay.


In another incident last month, a North Kingstown beachfront property owner was arrested after accosting a family and breaking their umbrella when they refused to leave part of the beach where the public is allowed.

Brittany Bowker can be reached at Follow her @brittbowker and also on Instagram @brittbowker.