NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — For the second time, a Superior Court judge has ruled the controversial Narragansett ordinance that puts a three-student cap on off-season rental homes is invalid.
The 14-page decision handed down Nov. 9 by Judge Sarah Taft-Carter comes as a newly-elected Town Council prepares to take over at Monday night’s regular meeting.
Taft-Carter’s decision rejects the ordinance on procedural grounds: that the council passed it in September 2021 without a review by the Planning Board. State law requires the review to ensure ordinances are consistent with local comprehensive plans and zoning regulations.
In 2020 the board found the proposal was not aligned with the 2017 comprehensive plan, and voted against recommending it. The prior council voted to adopt it anyway.
That drew a court challenge from Narragansett 2100, a grassroots group of landlords and tenants. They successfully argued the town improperly limited public comment at a virtual hearing in August 2020.
Taft-Carter ruled in June 2021 that the first attempt at the ordinance was invalid because of this, and the new council then quickly held a hearing and re-adopted a virtually identical measure, on a 3-2 vote and after seven hours of testimony.
“Therefore, there were no findings and recommendations made regarding the 2021 Three-Student Ordinance,” Taft-Carter wrote.
Narragansett 2100 again took the issue to court.
The town urged the court to uphold the ordinance because the town “substantially complied with the requirements (of state law) by referring an identical ordinance to the board for study and recommendation the year prior,” the ruling says.
This new council would appear to have enough votes to try again to pass an ordinance that’s tailored to avoid being nullified by a court.
Returning councilors Ewa Dzwierzynski and Deborah Kopech voted in favor, and incoming member Steven Ferrandi campaigned on enforcement of the ordinance. Incoming councilor Jill Lawler has said she supports creation of a town short-term rental ordinance.
Susan Cicilline Buonanno is the only incoming council member who voted against the measure in 2021. She was in favor of a four-student ordinance, which the prior council rejected in favor of the measure barring more than three unrelated students from housing together.
Methods to limit the number of students that can occupy a single house have a long and convoluted history in town.
Proponents of the change complain that single-family home ownership has been degraded over the past several decades. The ordinance will help improve quality of life and attract more families to town, they argue.
Opposing the ordinance are landlords, property managers and others who said that so-called quality-of-life issues such as arrests, nuisance reports and orange sticker violations had significantly decreased in the past several years.
After a high-profile party at a student rental in 2014 grew out of control, Narragansett established the Ad Hoc Committee on the University of Rhode Island Rental Problems, which proposed a “four unrelated” ordinance as part of its recommendations. The ordinance barred more than four unrelated people from living together in a single rental housing unit.
A 2017 Municipal Court ruling deemed the “four unrelated” ordinance unconstitutional.
The town appealed, but slowed the process when a similar case in Providence with a limit of three unrelated persons made its way through the courts and ultimately to the Rhode Island State Supreme Court.
The court ultimately upheld the Providence ordinance in 2020, and Narragansett then proposed its own “three unrelated” occupants measure.
The new council, which will be sworn in Monday, will decide whether to appeal the ruling, craft a new ordinance or try for a third time with the existing one. With only three scheduled meetings left in 2022, any action is likely to happen next year.