SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. —The challenge to private beach owners wanting to stop public access to their land is far from over, says Scott Keeley, who organized a protest drawing more than 200 supporters to step over the Charlestown-South Kingstown line into the sand of exclusive beaches.
The Charlestown resident turned self-described renegade said the push will continue, most especially against the symbol that draws the ire of he and his followers: A security guard who stopped him from picking up seaweed a few weeks ago.
“We are currently asking everyone to revisit the same location to enjoy the shoreline and to ignore the security guard,” he said this week about the spot on Charlestown Beach Road at the South Kingstown town line where he was arrested in June.
Keeley challenged the security guard’s presence at a nearby private beach adjoining the Charlestown public beach. He was arrested for trespassing, but charges were later dropped because evidence about the line he crossed was too difficult to prove, police said.
The exact location of public access on private beaches is not clear and the Rhode Island Constitution only references a right of way. Over the decades there have been various debates, legal challenges to determining the location and differing ways to measure.
The latest moving target, set by the Rhode Supreme Court, is called the mean high-tide line averaged over 18.6 years. That is one line to remove from the books, according to many of the 200 people of all ages who came Saturday to join Keeley in a beach protest.
“It should be 10 feet from the water to where the sand starts to get dry,” said Deborah Carney, vice president of the Charlestown Town Council.
She referenced the much-used “width of an ox-cart” - considered 10 feet from wheel-to-wheel - used at the time RI constitutional framers set down a constitutional right access without a defined measure.
“You didn’t have houses like we have then. They collected seaweed for fertilizing. The ox cart was pulled along the shore line and that is the way they would have measured it,” said James Bedell, a shoreline access activist.
Regardless of measurement, though, Keeley and his supporters have stirred up passion and interest this summer.
“Please come and get a post card with the Rhode Island Constitution on it,” Keeley told the assembled crowd so that they would have official wording — that makes no mention of where the line is — should a private owner stop them.
They began their protest with a chorus of “God Bless America,” having its own reference to oceans white with foam, and speakers sounding like leaders exhorting civil-rights marchers.
On cue, with bullhorn and tambourine, they trudged from the gateway of Charlestown Town Beach about 50 yards and the crossed the border on to South Kingstown’s residents’ private beaches.
Posters carried by those attending included messages screaming from their cardboard in all styles of handwriting, “Free The Beach,” “You Cannot Police an Arbitrary Line” and “You Don’t Own This Beach.”
Underneath the protest about beach access is another expression of concern, some even said frustration and regret. Rhode Island is evolving from rural seacoast shanties to many million-dollar homes, whose owners say their higher taxes should afford them the privacy rights of beaches deeded to them.
They are easy get-away vacation spots for nearby Nutmeggers coming from Connecticut and New Yorkers who find the Ocean State sporting more reasonable prices than Long Island’s Hamptons, despite the distance.
“It’s being done by these few wealthy land owners who can afford a security guard…so that they can tell us what our rights are,” Keeley has said.
Martha Bruno, who has lived as 792 Charlestown Beach Road for decades, right in front of the dividing line between public and private beaches, said there should be a right of access.
“There’s freedom of the oceans. No one should be stopping people,” she said.
Tom Phelan, who has lived nearby the Charlestown Beach - South Kingstown border since the 1950s, favored less policing with a security guard.
“That’s not the kind of neighborhood we want to foster here,” he added.
Michelle Palmer, who also lives nearby, said, “Charlestown is a welcoming community. Being greeted by this (a security guard) won’t be tolerated.”
Along with the presence of security guards, Keeley and others have also taken issue with “private property” signs posted along the beach telling people to stay out.
The Coastal Resources Management Council said that it has taken enforcement action against some private beach homeowners with signs, but did not describe the nature of the action. It also said that it has involved the state Attorney General’s Office in discussions related to beach access issues. The discussions have also included local police and private property owners, CRMC said.
Several beachfront property owners would not comment on the protest. “I don’t want to get involved with that issue,” said one homeowner walking by the gathering, but unwilling to be identified. In recent interviews others said they didn’t want to spark further controversy or retaliation.
A coastal properties lawyer who has represented beachfront land owners said walking on beachfront sand is not the issue, but setting up camp on the private property is the problem. John Boehnert, a Providence lawyer, is also author of “Buying, Owning, and Selling Rhode Island Waterfront and Water View Property.”
“From the property owners’ perspective, people will encamp on their property. They will set up blankets, they will spend the day, play music. This is well from the waterline and well on their property,” he said, pointing out that being within the allowable space would most likely be a soggy experience.
“Accordingly, when beach-goers are traversing the shore above the highest throw of seaweed on sand, they should have a pretty good idea that they may be trespassing. If they are crawling across someone’s porch or patio, they should have little question they are trespassing,” he said.
“It’s often presented as ‘All we want to do is walk along the shore.’ But that’s not what happens,” he said, adding, “Because it’s waterfront property, owners are paying significant taxes for it. It’s really a private property rights issue rather than a public access issue.”