NARRAGANSETT – Narragansett 2100, an organization representing landlords and property owners in Narragansett, last month filed a complaint in Washington County Superior Court over the town’s recent passage of a new ordinance that would prohibit more than three college students living together in non-owner-occupied dwellings.

The plaintiffs, which includes the landlord group as well as a number of individuals and family trusts, filed an emergency motion for injunctive relief and a temporary restraining order barring the enforcement of the ordinance.

The ordinance in question was passed on Aug. 24 in a 3-1-1 vote by the Narragansett Town Council. Specifically, the ordinance prohibits more than three college students from occupying a non-owner-occupied property. The complaint was filed on Sept. 2.

The complaint alleges the town council stifled public comment on the issue during discussion that preceded the vote.

“The Town Council, at public hearing, determined that it would vote in favor of the passage of the ordinance and restricted interested individuals’ ability to participate in the public hearing so as to voice their respective objections to the then-proposed Ordinance,” the complaint reads. “The Town’s actions and/or omissions in estopping residents, landowners and/or members of the community from voicing their opposition to the Ordinance was a direct attack on our form of government, both state and local, founded on the pillars of due process of law, notice of the laws to be enacted and a meaningful opportunity to be heard with respect to the same.”

On the night of its passage, after numerous public hearings on the matter were heard at both the planning board and town council level, the town council did not allow public comment on the motion to approve the proposed zoning ordinance. Plaintiffs are seeking a court declaration that this action was unlawful and in violation of both state zoning laws and the Rhode Island Constitution.

The complaint also alleges that plaintiffs wished to be heard on the night of Aug. 17, when the town council was hosting a public hearing on the matter, but were not selected to speak.

Narragansett is home to many students from the nearby University of Rhode Island who chose to live off-campus for the academic year. For decades, residents have struggled against the changes brought on by students, including disorderly behavior and public drunkenness, along with other factors, such as homes that are typically reserved for single-families being converted to de facto dormitories. Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan has called the situation a “culture clash” between residents seeking quality of life and students carrying out a typical college lifestyle.

The town has had its hands tied in trying to enforce any similar ordinance, which it has passed on numerous occasions, due to a 1992 Rhode Island Superior Court decision that found such a law restricting the amount of college students in dwellings to be unconstitutional. In May of this year, however, the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld a zoning amendment from the City of Providence that limited dwellings to three college students in certain neighborhoods, and was critical of the 1992 state superior court outcome.

The town council, after years of hearing complaints from residents, had elected a “wait and see” approach in regard to the Providence case, and once the RI Supreme Court rendered a decision, began to work on closely-mirroring the upheld Providence law. At the same time, URI announced it would be reducing its on-campus housing capacity by 1,800 students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting an increased need for off-campus housing and fueling a resistance to the local proposal led by URI students and the landlords and property owners who rent out to the demographic during the academic year.

At the public hearings that were held, those against the ordinance outnumbered those in favor, though the town council passed the ordinance in 3-1-1 vote on Aug. 24 and noted it would take effect upon passage, despite some councilors arguing to delay it until next year. The emergency basis of the complaint notes that the passage of the ordinance came at a time when many leases were being signed and contracts being finalized for the upcoming academic year, which began in September. The town council, in its deliberations before the vote, said any leases signed prior to the ordinance being passed would be legal while any contracts signed after the passage would be in violation.  

“Importantly, and as attested to in the Affidavits offered in support of the instant Motion, the Plaintiffs’ properties are all under lease agreement for this school year with college students whom are on the precipice of, if not already, moving into these respective rentals,” the complaint reads. “As such, any enforcement of the illegal Ordinance at issue herein would have a substantial effect not only on the Plaintiffs, but also the college students with whom they contracted far in advance of the passage of the subject Ordinance.

Council president Matthew Mannix, president pro tem Jill Lawler and council member Rick Lema voted in favor of the ordinance to restrict the number of college students renting non-owner-occupied dwellings. Councilor Jesse Pugh initially approved a first reading of the ordinance on Aug. 17, but abstained in the second and final vote Aug. 24. Councilor Patrick Murray, who cautioned that the approval of the ordinance would result in lawsuits against the town, was the sole vote against. 

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