In the rich annals of Rhode Island legal battles, this case lacks the high-society intrigue of the Claus von Bülow murder trial or the envelope-full-of-cash evidence unveiled during the “Operation Plunder Dome” investigation of Providence City Hall.
But it’s tough to find more quintessentially Rhode Island litigation than a current lawsuit involving Bonnet Shores and its cabanas, which for generations have symbolized summer living at the beach in Narragansett.
A group of residents is suing the Bonnet Shores Fire District, claiming it’s unconstitutional for the district to prevent residents from voting if they own less than $400 worth of property. They say that restriction prevents some year-round residents from voting while giving voting rights to nonresidents who own beach cabanas — including 16-square-foot bathhouse units.
The residents first filed the suit in March 2020, but the case drew renewed attention this week when the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island filed a legal brief, tracing the history of voting restrictions in Rhode Island and blasting the idea of limiting voting rights to property owners.Get Rhode Map in your inboxA weekday briefing from veteran Rhode Island reporters, focused on the things that matter most in the Ocean State.Enter EmailSign Up
“The charter of the Bonnet Shores Fire District appears caught in a time loop that has ignored the evolution of voting rights in the United States and Rhode Island since it was first enacted in 1932,” ACLU lawyers wrote. “This relic of a period of widespread disenfranchisement is unconstitutional and cannot endure.”
But Thomas M. Dickinson, a lawyer for the Bonnet Shores Fire District, said the case hinges on whether the fire district fits into the category of government entities where a one-person-one-vote rule applies, and he argued that it does not. Rather, he said, the district is more akin to a condominium association or neighborhood association.
“The Bonnet Shores Fire District is not a fire district at all,” Dickinson said. “It does not do things that a municipality does, notably such as fighting fires, and it is not responsible for the school system, the police, or sewage disposal.”