NARRAGANSETT – A little more than a week after its unanimous passage by the town council, the town’s emergency moratorium on all new building permits will face heavy modifications per order of the court.
In Washington County Superior Court on Friday, a consent agreement was issued that will restrict enforcement of the emergency measure in R-40 and R-80 zones, as well as prohibit the moratorium from applying to permits for structures with four or less bedrooms. The order came about after two plaintiffs filed a complaint seeking injunctive relief against the town.
Last month, the Narragansett Town Council unanimously passed an emergency moratorium on all new building permits in town, despite overwhelming resistance from the public (and some support), while citing the increasing local development of four-or-more-bedroom structures that are then rented out to either students or tourists as a commercial enterprise. Some residents accurately predicted the move would lead to litigation.
R-40 zoning require lots up to at least 40,000 square feet to erect a single-family home and R-80 zones require lots to be at least 80,000 square feet for the same purpose.
The town has attempted to balance quiet residential life with the inevitable influx of students from the nearby University of Rhode Island for decades, sometimes not finding success. According to town staff, the development of more-than-four-bedroom structures that are then utilized as commercial enterprises by being rented out to groups of students is on the rise locally. The council last month, before the moratorium was passed, heard from a resident of Eastward Look regarding a potentially problematic development in that neighborhood that abutters feared would fit the above description.
The emergency moratorium, proposed to last 60 days, was intended, according to the council, to put a stop to these types of developments while town staff constructed language that would permanently address the issue. Multiple members of the public disputed the moratorium at the council meeting where it was approved last month, stating that they were not the intended targets of the emergency ordinance, with some claiming they were about to construct their “dream homes” in town and could stand to lose everything if construction did not begin soon due to the expiration of construction loans.
One of those speakers, Robert Chartrand, was a plaintiff in the impending lawsuit against the moratorium filed in Washington County Superior Court shortly after the moratorium’s passage and heard on Friday, Jan. 31. The town council is allowed to enact emergency ordinances, including wide-ranging moratoriums, via the Town Charter.
“I’m very confident the entire ordinance is defective and will be thrown out for many reasons,” said Michael Kelly, an attorney with KSR&P Law, a law firm based in Providence representing the plaintiffs in the case. “One, there was no notice as required by the statute. No notice to anybody.”
Kelly also took aim at a January, 2019 letter from Narragansett Fire Marshal Kevin Tuthill, which called attention to the construction issue, and was heavily cited by council members during the moratoirum’s passage.
“There certainly wasn’t any emergency, because the letter upon which the council relied was a year old,” said Kelly.
“Fire code is not something the town council has any control over,” Kelly continued. “Finally, the procedure used was invalid and did not conform with the requirements of state law and amounts to a violation of the Constitutional rights of everyone who tried to apply during the course of this fiasco.”
At a town council meeting on Monday night, town solicitor Andrew Berg addressed the topic and commented on the new restrictions placed on the moratorium, which is still in effect with the court-ordered conditions.
“This addresses the issue that was in front of the court at the time, the judge was satisfied and will not issue a restraining order, both sides agreed,” he said. “We anticipate there may be some more litigation coming up, but for now the moratorium is in effect with those limitations.”
“[The consent agreement] has addressed the litigant’s concerns and it also has not undermined the town’s goals in passing the building moratorium,” Berg added.
Kelly also said some of his clients had expressed fear of retaliation for signing onto the lawsuit that forced the changes to the moratorium late last month.
“I have been contacted by several people who have been injured by this moratorium,” he said. “They expressed concern about backlash if they became involved in the suit. I think that attitude or concern is misplaced, but any time anyone’s Constitutional rights are violated, the backlash should not be a concern to anyone and obviously, any backlash from the town, if someone exercised their Constitutional rights, would be absolutely improper.”
Councilors Matthew Mannix, Jesse Pugh, Jill Lawler and Rick Lema declined comment for this article.