Tivertonand Portsmouth shorelines. (Kris Craig, Providence Journal)

RI - State's new shoreline access law has its first day in court. Here's a look at the arguments

Rhode Island's new shoreline access law had its first day in court on Wednesday, offering a preview of the arguments to come.

The hearing before U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith centered around whether coastal property owners have standing to sue to the state Coastal Resources Management Council, and whether the case belongs in federal court.

But it also touched on the underlying question: Does the law, which says that the public has the right to use any beach as long as they're within 10 feet of the seaweed line, constitute an unconstitutional "taking" of private property?

That's the argument being made by the Rhode Island Association of Coastal Taxpayers (RIACT), a newly formed group of waterfront homeowners suing to overturn the law.

Roughly a dozen RIACT supporters and members were present to observe the proceedings at the federal courthouse in Providence on Monday. The group is being represented pro bono by the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, which hired a plane to fly a sign saying "RI TAKES PRIVATE PROPERTY" over Rhode Island beaches in July.

State's lawyers quizzed about potential 'taking' of private property

Earlier this summer, the Rhode Island Attorney General's Office filed a motion to dismiss the property owners' lawsuit. In court on Wednesday, Judge Smith observed that the state's lawyers seemed to be arguing that "these plaintiffs have brought the wrong cause of action against the wrong plaintiff ... in the wrong court."

"You're just saying, 'You're in the wrong place for this,'" he said.

Smith told the attorneys that, as he understood it, public access has "been expanded by this law." Usually, when the government acquires beachfront property, it does so through eminent domain, he pointed out. (He cited the example of how Narragansett Town Beach was created after the Hurricane of 1938.)

The judge made clear that he hadn't yet determined that the new law could be considered a "taking" of private property, as the plaintiffs are arguing. But he asked the state's lawyers to explain how coastal property owners who are harmed by the law should seek compensation, if not in federal court.

"I'm sure you're not going to tell me that it's just too bad," he said.

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