NARRAGANSETT – On May 1, Bonnet Shores Fire District (BSFD), a semi-autonomous neighborhood located in Narragansett’s north end, filed suit against the town of Narragansett in Washington County Superior Court, seeking an appeal of a recent town council decision to amend the town’s zoning ordinance pertaining to a property located at 1007 Boston Neck Road. The filing seeks a declaration that the zoning amendment was invalid and legally defective, as it did not comply with the Rhode Island Zoning Enabling Act on the basis of a lack of written notice to BSFD and a lack of compliance with the town’s comprehensive plan, among other factors.
The conflict stems from an April 3, 2017 Narragansett Town Council decision to re-designate the property at 1007 Boston Neck Road in the town’s comprehensive plan land use map from a medium/low residential land use district to a commercial land use district, as well as amend the zoning of the property from an R-10 zoning district to a BB zoning district. This power is granted to municipalities via the 1991 R.I. Zoning and Enabling Act. The property in question sits at the edge of Bonnet Shores Road, at the entry to the Bonnet Shores neighborhood, just off Boston Neck Road, and is currently used as a residential dwelling. The property’s owner, Vincent Fraioli, who purchased the 13,000 square-foot space in February, was in attendance at the April 3 meeting, and spoke to his plans to turn the site into a small real estate office for the business he works for, Edge Realty. The ultimate decision in favor of Fraioli directly followed a deeply contentious town solicitor appointment and a public hearing on the zoning change, during which numerous residents of BSFD spoke against the motions, stating that they were not notified of the potential zone change and that the proposal should come before the BSFD Council before being heard by the town council.
“My understanding is it’s been colloquially known as the ‘party house of Narragansett’ for a while, it’s basically a rental house,” said Fraioli's attorney, Donald Packer, at the April 3 meeting. “Single-family use at that intersection is not really compatible with the necessary use. There’ll be very little changes proposed for the structure, some signage for a real estate office, but pretty much the property is going to remain in its current condition other than to spruce it up a little bit to make it look more like a real estate office as opposed to a boarding house.”
BSFD, created by charter and approved by the RI General Assembly (RIGA) in 1932, includes all property lying between the easterly line of Boston Neck Road and Narragansett Bay, according to its charter, from the current Bonnet Liquors to Nardolillo Funeral Home. 1007 Boston Neck Road falls within the parameters of this designation. BSFD is part of Narragansett, however, road ownership is a matter of debate in this area, as, at different times, its charter refers to “existing private roads” and, later, “public highways” in the context of addressing sewer maintenance. BSFD has its own council and has the ability to draft its own ordinances and budget. Residents of the fire district pay taxes to both the BSFD and the town of Narragansett.
During the deliberation of the public hearing, Narragansett Town Councilors Patrick Murray and Jill Lawler expressed approval of the zoning changes, while council president pro-tem Matthew Mannix was against. On March 21, the Narragansett Planning Board recommended approval of the zone changes to the council in a 3-0 vote.
Town council President Susan Cicilline Buonanno originally said the public hearing should be continued, but after hearing approval from both Murray and Lawler, said she had also been in favor, and thus called it to a vote, seeing a council consensus. Ultimately, the motions were approved 4-1, with the lone dissenter being Mannix, who cautioned the council before the vote was taken.
“The people who testified understand what goes on in the fire district. They understand it, you guys don’t,” he said at the meeting. “It’s the first zone change, it’s incumbent on you to continue this, it’s irresponsible not to.”
At the town council’s next meeting on April 17, public forum was dominated by Bonnet Shores residents, with a total of 10 individuals petitioning the council to rescind its vote from the previous meeting. They were joined in sentiment by a letter from Dist. 33 (South Kingstown, Narragansett) state representative Carol Hagan McEntee, also encouraging the council to reconsider. A large concern among this group was the fear that the April 3 vote would set a precedent for changing additional residential zones within the fire district to commercial zones in the future.
The council, however, did not rescind its vote, resulting in the lawsuit, which lists the defendants as the current town council, the town of Narragansett and Vincent Fraioli. The appeal, among other complaints, echoes the sentiment from both sections of public comment on the matter, in that the BSFD was not notified of the potential zone change.
“Written notice of the amendment was not provided to BSFD as required by R.I.G.L. 45-24-53(c)(2), which requires that, ‘Written notice of the date, time and place of the hearing shall be sent to all owners of real property whose property is located in or within not less than 200 feet of the perimeter of the area proposed for change,” the complaint reads.
According to town documents, on March 23, BSFD Manager Lisa DiBello signed a notification from the town to the Bonnet Shores Land Trust (BSLT), notifying that body of the hearing on the zoning change set for April 3. The affiliation of BSLT to BSFD is a matter of debate. On the BSFD website, the BSLT is sometimes referred to as such, but in other instances is referred to as the “Bonnet Shores Fire District Land Trust.”
“Legislation approved by the R.I.G.A. in the January Session of 1991, created the Bonnet Shores Land Trust as an agent or arm of Bonnet Shores Fire District community government and as such is part of the quasi municipal government,” the website read at the time of this writing.
When asked why residents of BSFD said they were not notified of the hearing, DiBello said it was because the two bodies, BSFD and BSLT, were not one in the same. DiBello further said she signed the notification from the town as a favor to BSLT chair Terry Duffy, who thought the notification was in regards to an unrelated matter between Bonnet Shores and the town and asked DiBello to pick it up from the post office. DiBello is not affiliated with BSLT.
“I drove down to the post office, signed for the certified mail, never looked at it, never knew what it was, handed the envelopes off to the chairman and that was the end of it,” she said.
DiBello also reiterated that no notification was ever sent to the BSFD. At the April 3 town council meeting, Duffy is quoted as saying BSLT is “an agency” of BSFD.
In an interview, Cicilline Buonanno said she was disappointed a lawsuit had emerged, stating that she lived in the north end and “cared deeply” about BSFD and its residents. She said she called the matter to a vote due to the positive recommendation of the planning board, her council colleagues’ feelings on the matter, the overall interest of the town and Fraioli’s agreement to work with the BSFD at the April 3 meeting.
“I think we have to keep an eye on development in the north end, but still enjoy the conveniences of what we have today,” she said, while adding that past town decisions have caused an unnatural mix of zoning classifications in the area and the decision would help rectify that. “But I happen to think that particular piece of property has been so poorly maintained over time that I’m glad someone is finally going to improve it.”
“Bonnet is part of the town and I care deeply about those residents and what they think, but they are part of the whole town,” Cicilline Buonanno continued. “They are a fire district, but we have to make decisions for everybody, and I think that zoning change wasn’t against Bonnet but was more for everybody else.”
BSFD Council Chair Len Mercier said the fire district should have been a part of the process.
“The Bonnet Shores Fire District Council feels that we should have been at the table when they were making the decision or even discussing to change the property to a commercial zone since the property is located in Bonnet Shores and on our tax roll,” he said. “Bonnet Shores is zoned residential and the council feels pretty strongly that they want it to stay that way. We just felt that we should have had some say on it.”
The decision to file the lawsuit came after an April 27 BSFD Council unanimous vote.
“We’re in hopes that we can stop it, and, if for some reason we can’t stop it, we don’t want it to continue on,” said Mercier. “What if it’s the next house down? And then the next? That’s the fear all of our residents have.”
“We’ve had a great relationship with Narragansett, of course, we’re part of Narragansett,” continued Mercier. “We didn’t file for the appeal because we’re angry [with the town], beside from the fact that we don’t think it was done properly and we want a say. We want to continue on with a great relationship like we’ve had for many, many years.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of BSFD by attorney William R. Landry.