NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The new Narragansett Town Council is taking another look at a controversial ordinance passed last year that limits the number of college students that can share a rental house to three people.
The workshop Monday was set up by council President Pro Tem Susan Cicilline Buonanno.
“The last council had decided to hold off on enforcement until September of 2021,” Council President Jesse Pugh said. That moratorium applied to both the “three-person” ordinance and an existing ordinance that limited rental house tenants to four unrelated people.
“I just want to see if there’s an appetite for a compromise in any way,” Buonanno, who was involved in the ad-hoc work for the “four unrelated” ordinance, said. “If not, talking about how we can enforce it has been on my mind.”
The workshop, with no votes taken, was focused on how the town would enforce such an ordinance, Pugh said.
The newer ordinance drew a joint condemnation Feb. 8 from the University of Rhode Island College Democrats and College Republicans.
“We believe this ordinance accomplishes little other than harming students and damaging the local economy,” the groups said. They asked the council to repeal the three-person limit.
The previous council voted 4-1 in August to implement the three-student limit, after hours of public comment both for and against it. Patrick Murray voted against the change.
And the town’s Planning Board voted unanimously on July 29 to not recommend the ordinance change.
Proponents of the change complained that single-family home ownership has been degraded over the past several decades.
Resident Paul Zonfrillo, representing a local neighborhood association, said zoning and enforcement have been unable, for 30 years, to curb the appetite for investors who want to rent beach-side properties to URI students.
“There’s been a culture of entitlement with these investors,” he said. There’s big money to be made in leases, he said.
Zonfrillo urged the town to keep the ordinances in place.
“Let’s change the whole fabric of Narragansett, to a family-friendly town,” he said.
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.
Narragansett 2100 member Joe Lembo, representing landlords and tenants, showed police department data depicting a dramatic drop in offenses and violations in the past six years.
The newer rule, he added, is not consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan, according to a report by land use planner Ed Pimental.
“Limiting the number of students who live in a house will not make party-goers drink less or respect their neighbors more,” he said. “But when limits are placed on the number of students who can live in one house, do we realize that more rental housing will develop to meet the demand?”
Increased enforcement and an education campaign since 2014, working with students, landlords, URI officials and local police, has made the difference, he added.
Narragansett 2100 also said it strongly urges the council to revoke the three student ordinance.
Michael Millen Jr., a council candidate in the last election, said other avenues need to be discussed to address many of the concerns.
“We need strong legislation and enforcement that would hold property owners accountable for disruptive tenants,” Millen said. “We also need tax rates that deter turning Narragansett real estate into a cash cow for non-resident property owners, disincentivize seasonal rentals, and use incentives which encourage owners to provide year round rental lease opportunities for young professionals and new families that want to be a part of the Narragansett community and its future. These changes would help alleviate many of the issues we currently face while retaining our identity as a town.”
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.
After the town cited 34 individuals, families and businesses accused of violating the ordinance, which was enacted in May 2016, the ACLU of Rhode Island filed a brief in Narragansett Municipal Court seeking dismissal of the charges. A 2017 Municipal Court ruling deemed the town’s so-called “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 Providence ordinance was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court on May 27, and Narragansett proposed the so-called “three unrelated” occupants ordinance.
Murray said he and councilor Ewa Dzwierzynski recently spoke with an official from URI’s Student Affairs about the issue.
“I think URI’s got a new commitment here to enforcement of off-campus student behavior. I think we can work with that,” Murray, a real estate agent, said.
Buonanno said she’s more comfortable with the four-person limit on rentals.
Dzwierzynski said she struggled to balance resident quality of life issues with property owners’ rights.
“These ordinances aren’t new to towns, a lot of college towns have them,” she said. “I just feel we really need to look at enforcement, now that we have an opportunity and these ordinances are legal.”
Councilor Deb Kopech said the issue goes beyond enforcement.
“I think we have an issue with houses that are too big for where they are,” she said. “We have issues with natural resources here in Narragansett … I have a concern with a lot of commercial rentals in residential zones. There’s a lot of parts to this we have to consider.”
Pugh said homes have become almost unaffordable for full-time residents, and that less young families are coming into town.
Solicitor Andrew Berg said the ordinance is legally sound, and that enforcement procedures would be established through the town manager.
Manager James Tierney mentioned that he has been in touch with Newport officials, as the city adopted its own rules for housing and the local Salve Regina University student population.