NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The ball is back in the Narragansett Town Council’s court, after the Narragansett Planning Board recommended the council not pass a proposed ordinance change that would cap the number of students that can live in a rental house at three.
The council will take the matter up at its Aug. 17 Zoom meeting, with a full public hearing. The Planning Board voted unanimously on July 29 to not recommend the ordinance change.
The board took the issue up July 9, listening to more than two hours of public comment and receiving more than 100 items of written testimony and attended by more than 200 people. A prior scheduled meeting had to be canceled because there were more attendees than the web meeting system could accommodate.
“I’ve never seen any response like this,” Chairman Terence Fleming said. “We received things on all sides of the issue.”
In explaining his vote, board member Vincent Indeglia said he doesn’t think the proposal meets the goals of the entire town.
“There are some residents who would approve this ordinance, and they have very individual reasons for wanting that,” he said. “It can’t just be the vocal few that make the decisions for all.”
He also said it does not meet the goals of the town’s comprehensive plan and doesn’t foster relations with the University of Rhode Island. There also is no evidence that limiting rentals to three students would change behavior, he said.
“The goal of changing that behavior needs to be accomplished in another way,” he said.
The board’s recommendation is advisory to the council, meaning the Town Council will have the final word on whether the ordinance takes effect.
Even then, some say the move would likely be appealed in court. Town solicitor Andrew Berg has said he believes the law would stand up to a court challenge. Berg also said he thinks the town’s existing “four unrelated” ordinance is enforceable now.
“The four unrelated law has been on the books, but the town never enforced it because we had a Superior Court ruling from 1992 saying it was unconstitutional that has now been over-ruled by the Supreme Court,” he said.
Narragansett’s draft ordinance amendment is modeled after a similar ordinance in Providence, but with three changes.
The Narragansett law would not be limited to specific zoning areas of town. It would focus on dwellings and dwelling units, not just single-family homes. Each unit in a duplex would be limited to three students, for example.
Finally, Narragansett would broadly define a college student and leave out a requirement that shows that a student commutes to campus.
State zoning regulations say that the municipalities can designate the number of unrelated people living in a dwelling but that it cannot be fewer than three, Narragansett Director of Planning Michael DeLuca said.
Joe Lembo, a board member of the Narragansett 2100 nonprofit group of landlords, property managers and others, said violations such as arrests, nuisance reports and orange sticker violations had significantly decreased in the past several years.
“Our cooperation, education, working with the Narragansett Police, over these past five years, we have created a better environment in Narragansett,” he said. Rentals, he said, contribute $8 million in property tax revenues. “This proposed ordinance is not only going to have a negative impact on our tax base, but on our local businesses.”
Higher taxes, more children in schools and an inflated school budget would be the result, Lembo argued.
The University of Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU has backed opponents of the measure as well.
“It is now incumbent on the Town Council to listen to the town’s residents and planning experts,” the group said in a statement.
Others, such as year-round resident Steve Ferrandi, of the Eastward Look Homeowners’ Association, said that single-family homeownership has been degraded over the past 35 years.
“They’re basically turning into mini dormitories,” he said. He welcomed the change the ordinance would make. “Finally, we have a bonafide ordinance,” he said.
Kathy Collins, the University of Rhode Island’s vice-president of student affairs, touted the university’s strong positive relationships it has enjoyed for decades with host towns South Kingstown and Narragansett.
“We were surprised by the abrupt decision by the Narragansett Town Council that targets our students who rent homes in the local community,” she said.
The council often ignores issues surrounding summer renters and instead focuses on students, she said, who contribute “much-needed revenue and vitality” to the community.
“We strongly believe that your proposed exclusionary zoning that you’re exploring will have a negative impact on your community and our state,” she said. URI requested that current regulations remain in place, especially while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
URI also works regularly with Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan to address student conduct cases, she said. Each case is reviewed and taken seriously by a conduct team, she said.
The student rental issue has a long history in Narragansett, which hosts URI students in the fall, winter and spring.
Based on what officials said were concerns regarding quality of life in the community – and 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.
The move compelled both supporters and opponents to attend public meetings via Zoom in numbers not seen for any other planning or zoning issues.
“Over my 20 years I’ve never seen any kind of response like this, in terms of public commentary,” Fleming said.