Federal court judge dismisses challenge to RI shoreline access law

Opinion cites problems with constitutional claims and defendants

By: - September 20, 2023 12:20 pm

High Watch, the home of singer Taylor Swift, sits on the highest point in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and features 700 feet of shoreline. (Google Earth)

Wrong court, wrong argument and against the wrong people.

So declared U.S. District Court Judge William Smith in his Sept. 19 opinion dismissing a legal challenge to the state’s newly inked shoreline access law. Smith ultimately sided with state Attorney General Peter Neronha, who sought to have the lawsuit thrown out. 

Smith’s reasoning, as laid out in a nine-page opinion, was three-fold: the group of coastal taxpayers who filed the complaint failed to prove individual members had been harmed by the law; the state agencies named as defendants are the wrong group to sue; and federal court is not the right place to hear a challenge to the state’s constitution.

“Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint on two grounds, and both can be reduced to an argument that Plaintiff seeks the wrong relief from the wrong defendants before the wrong court,” Smith wrote.

Neronha applauded the opinion in a statement on Wednesday, reiterating his pledge to protect residents’ constitutional right to access the shore, as clarified by state lawmakers earlier this year. 

The new law, signed by Gov. Dan McKee in June, attempted to resolve a decadeslong dispute over where to draw the line in the sand, allowing public access to the beach anywhere 10 feet landward from the high tide or “wrack” line.

Weeks later, a group of shoreline property owners known as the Rhode Island Association of Coastal Taxpayers (RIACT) sued Neronha and other state agencies, contending the law amounted to an unconstitutional “taking” of their property and asking for a judge to immediately stop them from enforcing the law.

The suit named Neronha, as well as the heads of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), as defendants. But the complaint instead detailed accounts of beachgoers “trespassing” on private property, rather than showing wrongdoing by the state agencies, which means their complaint lacks standing, Smith wrote. 

Even if the group won its case, it doesn’t actually address what it perceives to be the problem, according to Smith.

“If RIACT were successful in this case, it would do nothing to restrain nonparties, including the public whose very presence is the alleged harm, and state and local police, who have separate enforcement authority,” Smith wrote.

He later stated, “blocking these rights of way was a violation before enactment of the Act; and ongoing enforcement has nothing to do with the members’ alleged injuries.”

And since the suit fails to prove how the state agencies violated property owners’ rights under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, federal court is not the right place to hear the arguments, Smith said.

Still, the fight isn’t over, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the taxpayers in the federal court complaint.

“RIACT is disappointed in this result, but its members will not give up their constitutional property rights and will now consider alternative legal options,” David Breemer, a senior attorney with the Libertarian group representing the taxpayers, said in an emailed response on Wednesday.

DEM and CRMC both declined to comment on the opinion, referring questions to the attorney general’s office. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.