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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — A Superior Court judge on Monday stopped Narragansett from enforcing its controversial ordinance that limits the number of college students that can live in rental houses to three unrelated people.

Judge Sarah Taft-Carter granted a motion halting enforcement of the ordinance as part of a year-old case brought by Narragansett 2100, which represents tenants and landlords, against the town.

The move means the town is unable to enforce the new ordinance until a court rules on its legality.  

“We do not have a timeline on when a decision will come down on that,” Town Manager James Tierney said. “But effective immediately we will not be enforcing it until the court completes its review.”

Proponents and foes of the Narragansett rental law spoke out about it at Monday’s Town Council meeting.

“It’s a bitter disappointment for the many residents who have fought for this for years,” resident Harry Schofield said of Taft-Carter’s order Monday. “Hopefully, the town will prevail.”

He went on to accuse a “mafia cabal” of out-of-town landlords of governing local matters.

“I just hope that when people go to the polls in November, they vote for candidates who support resident-friendly zoning ordinances and against out-of-town landlords,” he said.

Student renters and some landlords also took the floor to denounce the town’s move to create a registry of the names and addresses of student renters. The registry was partly tied to the enforcement of the “three-student” ordinance.

Speakers called the registration requirement an invasion of privacy, and accused the town of “over-reach.” They also worried about potential abuse of the system, such as if the database were to be hacked or otherwise illegally accessed.

“As a woman, I’m very threatened by this happening,” URI Student Senate President Grace Kiernan, a Sand Hill Cove resident, said. “With today’s society, it is not fair for our information to be put out that we are living alone for the first time away from our parents in a house.”

Kiernan also said the 6,000 URI students who live off campus support many of the town’s businesses in the fall and winter.

“What are they going to do if you eliminate this community? Also, where would you like us to go, to sleep on a campground? Because there is no other option,” she said. “URI is the state’s flagship university and you should want those students to flourish and get the best education possible.”

Landlords also criticized the rental registrations.

“To me it is unnecessary, intrusive and serves no practical or legitimate purpose,” Karen Liner said. For the nine years she has rented her house, a signed and dated lease has been posted on the back of her door.

“That is for first responders in case of an emergency,” she said. “This information on the registration form is supposedly being kept internal. However, that information may still be able to be accessed by others. The sole purpose of this information is to catch violators, but at the price of student tenant safety and privacy. Truly, I feel it is just a fishing expedition by self-proclaimed ordinance police.”

The council did not have any action regarding the rental ordinance on Monday’s agenda, and the case continues in Taft-Carter’s courtroom, although no hearings are scheduled.

“I think I would’ve felt exactly the same way that the students do if I were in school,” Council President Jesse Pugh said. “I’m not going to say that the database cannot be hacked. However, URI has a database with all their students’ names and addresses, so that could be hacked.” He listed other instances such as an Airbnb rental, local schools and doctors’ offices that have databases containing personal information that could be breached.

Pugh went on to explain that the registry’s purpose was to help building officials enforce the three student ordinance in cases where either renters won’t open their door for town officials or the renters’ lease is not posted on the property.

“I understand the opposition to the ordinance. That’s been a debate for a long time here. I do think the registration part of this is nothing out of the ordinary,” Pugh said. “That information is out there, but what we’re saying is we’re not going to put it out there. But we may have further discussion down the road on this.”

Methods to limit the number of students that can occupy a single house have a long and convoluted history in town.

The current council voted 3-2 in August 2021 to pass the three-student ordinance. It was the second time the council had approved the measure, after Taft-Carter had ruled it invalid in an initial court challenge by Narragansett 2100 last year.

The renters and landlords took the town to court over the measure, saying it wrongly blocked them from speaking against the ordinance when the council first passed it in 2020.  

The previous council voted 4-1 to implement the three-student limit.

Proponents of the change complained 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 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.

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.

(6) comments

Marshalllele

Catherine needs to find a hobby, probably a husband too

C. Stire

URI students have been an intricate part of the Narragansett community for over 5 decades. This isn't Martha's Vineyard where you can just put them on a plane and ship them to someone else's backyard. From what information I have seen out there this ordinance actually increased the number of rentals in Narragansett due to supply and demand. It all seems to be pour leadership and direction

Catherine

URI released a number of 8-9000 students living in Narragansett.

Catherine

The privacy issue was yet another red herring raised by the rental owners . No one's privacy was ever in jeopardy.

As far as where the students are going tomlive - THAT IS A QUESTION THE STUDENTS SHOULD ASK URI but in the meantime, how about East Greenwich, South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Charlestown or Richmond ?

Catherine

"...Narragansett 2100, which represents tenants and landlords, against the town."

Pretty much says it all.

Catherine

The poll is useless because it allows rental owners,renters,students, in fact anyone online to respond .

Welcome to the discussion.

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