NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — A group that has sued Narragansett over a new ordinance limiting rental homes to three college students is asking a judge to rule that the town wrongly blocked its members from speaking against the ordinance before the Town Council passed it last year.
Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter heard arguments Tuesday from lawyers for the town and for a coalition of homeowners and landlords in the town. Taft-Carter later said she would render a decision on the matter, but none came Tuesday.
The group of 17 people seeking the judgment is aligned with Narragansett 2100, a grassroots group formed last year to oppose the change. Narragansett 2100 was not part of Tuesday’s motion but is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit against the town.
The complainants say that the council ignored their requests to speak at a lengthy hearing on Aug. 17 about the proposed ordinance. The council passed the change later that month.
“The 17 plaintiffs named in this litigation had their hands raised to try to participate in this hearing and they were unable to do so,” Joelle Rocha, attorney for the group, said.
Rocha noted that the council had allowed only residents to speak on it for 90 minutes and then let non-resident property owners speak for 30 minutes before closing the hearing.
“The ordinance was continued for a second passage, no public hearing, on August 24 and was passed at that point,” she said.
Rocha said statutes were unambiguous and require that “opportunity shall be given to all persons interested to be heard upon the matter of the proposed ordinance.”
Taft-Carter questioned whether this could lead to a hearing “going on for days” of testimony, and Rocha noted that most town bodies have some time limit, such as the three-minute speaking limit at Narragansett council meetings, to ensure the proceedings flow smoothly. She said the landowners had been denied their “unique opportunity” to speak, but did not argue against a time limit rule.
“The hearing could have been continued for one more time. This was a significant passage of an ordinance,” she said.
Town attorney Andrew Berg said the issue isn’t one of good government or the right to weigh in on an issue.
“What this really is about is an effort by the plaintiffs to obstruct the orderly business of the Town Council by rallying their membership,” he said.
“You can see the folly here that if everyone who wants to talk is guaranteed a right to talk, whether it’s statutory or constitutional, you’re going to have basically paralysis of government. The ability for special interest groups and organizations to essentially filibuster any actions by municipal government, state government or even federal government.”
He said there could be some ambiguity in the statute that says an opportunity shall be given for all people to speak.
“I would suggest that if the legislature wanted everyone to be guaranteed the right to speak, they would have said, ‘all persons shall be heard,’ rather than ‘an opportunity shall be provided,’” Berg said.
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 newer ordinance drew a joint condemnation Feb. 8 from the University of Rhode Island College Democrats and College Republicans.
The previous council voted 4-1 in August to implement the three-student limit, after hours of public comment both for and against it.
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.
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.