The Rhode Island Association of Coastal Taxpayers filed a complaint in U.S. District Court on Friday, saying the state’s new law that clarifies where members of the public can be along the shoreline in Rhode Island violates their rights as property owners under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

The property owners are asking a judge to declare that the new law “deprives them of their right to exclude non-owners from private beachfront property,” and block the state from enforcing the new law. 

“You cannot take property unless you buy it, unless you pay for it,” David Breemer, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the property owners, said in an interview. “What we have here is an attempt to get a large strip of private beachfront land for free, and the [U.S.] Constitution does not permit that.”

Breemer said the state already had an established boundary – the multi-year mean high tide line outlined in a 1980s Rhode Island Supreme Court case – and the new law changes the line in a way that deprives property owners.

According to the complaint, the new law “suddenly and dramatically altered Rhode Island’s common law related to beach property boundaries, with the effect of extending the public beach into traditionally private areas.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation is a national law firm that advocates on behalf of private property owners. Breemer said the foundation got involved in the case after being contacted by property owners in Rhode Island.

The lawsuit names Rhode Island’s Attorney General Peter Neronha, Coastal Resources Management Council Executive Director Jeffrey Willis, and Department of Environmental Management Director Terrence Gray as defendants.

In response to a request for comment Friday, Brian Hodge, spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, said, “The Attorney General is grateful that the General Assembly recognized Rhode Islanders’ constitutional rights to shoreline access and further codified that right into state law. We are still reviewing today’s filed lawsuit, but the Office stands ready to defend the law.”

The law, signed last week by Gov. Dan McKee, is intended to help clarify where beachgoers can do things like fish, gather seaweed, and walk along the shore in Rhode Island. 

Prior to the legislation passing, beachgoers argued that the standard set under the previous court ruling made it too difficult to determine where a person could be on the beach, leading to confusion and disputes between members of the public and property owners.

The new law says people can be within 10 feet landward of the seaweed line, and the public should go by the most seaward seaweed line when there are more than one. When there is no line of seaweed or other debris, the law says the point where wet sand meets dry sand, plus ten feet, should be used as the boundary.

Sean Lyness, a visiting assistant professor at New England School of Law who writes about shoreline access and has become involved in access efforts in Rhode Island, says he disagrees with the interpretation in the complaint filed by property owners on Friday.

Lyness says the new law did not shift the boundaries of public trust land in a way that constitutes a taking of property. It merely clarifies where the boundary is, based on historical usage of the shore in Rhode Island, he said, and other coastal states have established their own parameters in the past.

“They didn't enlarge or shift the line. They just clarified where that line has been,” Lyness said. “And they did so with an eye to what the constitutional history has been in this state.”

Section 17 of the state constitution states:

“The people shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of fishery, and the privileges of the shore, to which they have been heretofore entitled under the charter and usages of this state, including but not limited to fishing from the shore, the gathering of seaweed, leaving the shore to swim in the sea and passage along the shore…”

Lyness added, “The General Assembly was very careful to make sure that the bill that they passed was both substantive, but also one that could pass judicial muster.”

The new legal case comes as the beach season is getting into full swing and shoreline access advocates in Rhode Island are celebrating what they say was a major victory for the public with the signing of the new shoreline access law.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, shoreline access advocate Scott Keeley organized a banner flown along South County shores, reading, “THE RHODE ISLAND SHORE IS NOT PRIVATE!”On Friday, in announcing the filing of their lawsuit, the Pacific Legal Foundation indicated something similar is being planned to promote the perspective of property owners.

“[K]eep a look out for a banner flying along the Rhode Island shoreline highlighting this case,” wrote John Sweeney, a media manager for the foundation. “I'll have more information on this next week.”

But Scott Keeley, who was arrested for trespassing while collecting seaweed on the beach in 2019 on charges that were later dropped, says he’s also not done getting the word out on behalf of beachgoers either:

“I’m now organizing a radio spot,” Keeley said in a text message Friday. “It will be a 15 second ad that will run about three times a day.”

Alex Nunes can be reached at