Beach access policy heats up this summer
Thursday was election day at the beach.
As State House lawmakers debated a $ 13.1 billion budget, voters in the seaside enclave of Narragansett in Bonnet Shores gathered in a tent to choose who would run the Bonnet Shores Fire District. in the coming year.
Turnout was strong with 685 ballots cast in a neighborhood of around 1,800 residents.
Typically, elections in the dozens of local fire districts across Rhode Island would cause little ripple outside the neighborhood.
But Bonnet Shores’ vote came against the backdrop of a vote for the right to vote with candidates lining up on either side of the court battle.
Beyond that, beach politics are at the forefront of Rhode Island consciousness this summer.
In Westerly and Charlestown, other fire districts are under fire for fighting beach access instead of fires.
At Point Judith, a clash between landowners, including the mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey, and surfers over street parking has tilted in favor of surfers after the Narragansett City Council election last year .
In Washington, the senator Sheldon White House spent the week explaining – once again – his family’s involvement in the exclusive and possibly exclusive Bailey’s Beach Club.
And on Smith Hill, a bipartisan effort to allow people to walk along the shore without fear of trespassing arrest found some influence in the General Assembly, albeit in the form of a study commission on the question.
“You have people who feel very strong, they pay a lot of taxes, they pay a lot of money to live on the water”, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said on Thursday of the beach access debate. “But you want to make sure people have the right to walk along the beach because it’s rooted in our constitution.”
The Battle of Bonnet Shores is not about beach access, at least not in the usual sense.
This is one of the special firefighting districts in Rhode Island, what its focus is and who should be in control.
The Fire Department maintains two small beaches, collects garbage, has a community center, maintains a boat launch, and employs a security guard in the summer to prevent street parking and non-residents from using the beach during the day.
The General Assembly gave the district the power to tax, which it uses, and to police, which it does not have. (Narragansett provides public safety services.)
Anyone who owns at least $ 400 in real estate, including the co-owner of a 4ft by 4ft space at Bonnet Shores Beach Club, can vote in the Fire District election.
Neighborhood residents who rent or whose name is not on the deed of their house are not included in these roles.
The trial of a group of residents aims to force the fire district to allow all residents to vote, but only residents.
He received a boost in 2019 from the Secretary of State Nellie gorbea, who wrote that, based on a 1981 Rhode Island Supreme Court case involving the West Gloucester Fire District, preventing non-homeowner residents from voting is unconstitutional.
“I encourage you to review your charter and make any necessary changes to ensure it does not conflict with the above decision,” Gorbea wrote. She did not comment on whether allowing non-resident owners to vote is acceptable.
On a practical level, the debate boils down to whether the seasonal members of the Bonnet Shores Beach Club, where these beach cabanas and lockers are sold as condominiums, should be the key voting block of the district, or the residents.
There are approximately 1,800 residents and 2,900 Beach Club owners, according to Anita Langer, a member of the District Fire Council who lost her seat in Thursday’s election after running as a candidate for voting reform. Although residents pay much higher taxes on their homes than Beach Club members on cabanas, they are outnumbered.
“The Beach Club has shown up in droves and has more voters than residents,” Langer said. “People had to wait an hour and thirty minutes before they could vote. The atmosphere was tense.
Three of the five candidates elected to the board were supported by the Beach Club.
The disagreements between the residents (many of whom are club members) and the Beach Club did not start and ended with the lawsuit.
Last year, the Beach Club Condominium Association sued the fire department for garbage collection.
Prior to that, residents filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission against members of the district fire department board, alleging they had a conflict of interest with the beach club. The complaint was dismissed.
Last year, Langer filed a series of complaints under the Open Meetings Act against the District Fires.
The district clerk at the time, former chairman of Narragansett city council and candidate for the State Senate Matthew Mannix, argued that the Fire District was not a public body and did not have to follow the Open Meetings Act. But the attorney general Pierre Neronha disagreed and ruled against the district.
Through all of the infighting, Rhode Islanders living outside of Bonnet Shores may wonder why a non-municipal micro firefighting entity in the town of Narragansett is needed.
There are 46 fire districts in Rhode Island, according to a list provided by the Gorbea office. Most provide fire services to residents. Many of those that are not are located near salt water. They have names like Buttonwoods, Weekapaug, Quonochontaug, and Shady Harbor.
“It’s a joke. These fire quarters are just beaches,” said Rep. Brian patrick kennedy, D-Hopkinton, whose district includes beaches in the southwestern state that have seen the most intense access battles. “They might be assessing some sort of a fee for the owners, but the reality is they own a beach; if you try to go to that beach, they’ll stop you. They own croquet grounds.”
In many cases, fire districts do not operate much differently from homeowners associations and the greatest impact of their unusual status may be the imprint of authority that the words “fire district” have on a sign. ‘trespassing ban.
Despite his skepticism of the districts, Kennedy says he doesn’t know what to do, if anything, about them.
The planned change to the State House to expand public access to the shoreline would impact all owners of waterfront properties, not just those in ersatz fire districts.
Although the state constitution guarantees the people of Rhode Island the “privileges of the shore,” it has been left to the courts to say where the shore begins.
The Ibbison decision of 1982 set the limit at the mean high tide line, an invisible mark calculated as an average of 18.6 years of high tides. Even without sea level rise and beach erosion, it is difficult to determine where the public can venture out, if at all. And many wonder if a land frequently covered by the ocean was meant to be private.
A bill introduced by the senator Alana DiMario, D-Narragansett and Rep. Terri Cortrivien, D-Portsmouth, would create an exemption from the Penal Act for trespassing “on a sandy or rocky shore and within 10 feet of the most recent high tide line” as long as the person is fishing, picking seaweed, swimming or pass along the shore.
Cortvriend said she hoped “to put more clarity on what is public and how the public is exercising their riparian privileges.”
Head of House GOP Blake Filippi, R-Block Island, was a co-sponsor of the bill and opposed last Wednesday after Democratic leaders chose to turn the bill into a study committee.
“The people of Rhode Island have a right to the shore and that is denied to them by private landowners who are totally off limits,” he said.
On the other side of the beach access debate are groups like the Harbor Island Improvement Association in Narragansett.
“This means that our Association’s land will be legally accessible, without penalty, to anyone wishing to come by water and use 10 feet of our private property above the high tide mark made that day,” Rodman Black Jr., president of the association, wrote in opposition to Cortvriend’s original bill to the House Judiciary Committee.
The Shoreline Taxpayers Association for Respectful Traverse, Environmental Responsibility and Safety is represented at the State House by lobbyists at $ 5,000 per month. Christophe boyle and Brendan Doherty.
The study commission will look at “lateral access along the coast”. This does not include the separate issue of access and rights of way “to” the shore.
Why a study commission?
“Just a lot of controversy around it, a lot of very divergent views and I’m not sure everyone was watching the same news,” Shekarchi said Thursday night after the budget debate.
On Twitter: @PatrickAnderso_