Judge rules against Bonnet Shores in fire district voting rights case

·3 min read
The beach at Bonnet Shores in Narragansett.
The beach at Bonnet Shores in Narragansett.

You don't have to own a cabana to vote in Bonnet Shores, a judge ruled Thursday

In a decision likely to kick up sand in the popular beach enclave, Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter said the property-ownership requirement to vote in Bonnet Shores Fire District elections is unconstitutional.

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She ruled that renters and residents whose names are not on the deeds to their houses must be allowed to cast a ballot in fire district elections, just like property owners can.

Whether people who don't live in the district, but share ownership of a cabana at the Bonnet Shores Beach Club should be able to keep voting in the fire district elections is unclear.

Taft-Carter said she didn't have enough information about voting in Bonnet Shores to rule on whether nonresident voters were effectively disenfranchising residents.

Many RI waterfront fire districts do not fight fires

Like many waterfront fire districts in Rhode Island, the Bonnet Shores Fire District does not fight fires. That service, and policing, are provided by the town of Narragansett.

The fire district operates like a private homeowners association or beach club with the state-sanctioned power to levy taxes.

It maintains two small beaches, collects trash, owns a community center, maintains a boat ramp and employs a security guard in the summer to prevent street parking and nonresidents from using the beach during the day.

Fire district officials argued that because the district exercises limited powers, it is not a governmental body, and setting a $400 property ownership threshold to vote is not improper.

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Judge's voting decision

But Taft-Carter wrote that there is "clearly no genuine issue of dispute that the [fire district] actively exercises governmental powers that make BSFD elections matters of 'general interest' to all residents," in the decision saying all residents must be allowed to vote.

Taft-Carter did not award damages sought by the plaintiffs against the fire district.

"...on the current record, the Court cannot determine whether BSFD’s enforcement of the nonresident enfranchisement provision represented a meaningful and conscious choice sufficient to establish liability," she wrote.

Rhode Island fire districts that function primarily as private beach enclaves have come under fire recently as residents fight for greater coastal access.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs, calling the Bonnet Shores voting rules a "relic of a period of widespread disenfranchisement."

Attorney Lynette Labinger, who co-wrote the brief for the ACLU, said Thursday the "comprehensive and thoughtful decision should send a message to the many local government fire districts — particularly those regulating aspects of beach and shoreline communities — that these districts, which exercise government functions, cannot justify denying the vote to local residents who don’t own property just because they don’t have a fire department.”

panderson@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7384

On Twitter: @PatrickAnderso_

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Ruling non-owners Bonnet Shores fire district must be allowed to vote

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