NARRAGANSETT – The planning board on Wednesday unanimously recommended that the town council reject a proposed new law that would further limit the number of college students renting a dwelling together, stating that the draft ordinance was out of line with the town’s comprehensive plan and other solutions would be more viable and effective in addressing unruly behavior by the young demographic in residential neighborhoods. The council, the body which holds the final say on the matter, will host a public hearing on the topic on Aug. 17.
In its deliberations, the planning board, serving an advisory role in this capacity, noted its preference of simply enforcing an existing local ordinance enacted by the council in 2016 which limits occupancy of dwellings to no more than four unrelated persons, over the new proposed law that prohibits more than three college students from renting in town together. The board also found that a comprehensive, holistic approach to the issue that addresses all sources of disruptive behavior by individuals renting in Narragansett, such as summer tourists, would be more effective in alleviating the quality-of-life issues suffered by some permanent residents.
“I didn’t want it to only apply to students,” Terence Fleming, Narragansett Planning Board Chair, said Wednesday. “If we’re going to be honest about this issue of trying to control outrageous and abusive behavior by people who are here for a short term, to have fun and who want to party, it applies, in my view, to seasonal rentals and should apply to seasonal rentals.”
“We decided four was a reasonable number, I think we’re hearing from legal counsel that it’s defendable, it’s on the books, it has not been enforced,” Fleming continued. “There’s no way that I can recommend the town council support the number three like they’re considering.”
In 2016, in an effort to address the decades-long impact college students were having in neighborhoods, the town council unanimously approved a zoning amendment limiting occupancy of any dwelling to no more than four unrelated people. However, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island challenged the new law in court, a Narragansett Municipal Court judge declared the ordinance unconstitutional and discriminatory, relying on a 1992 Rhode Island Superior Court decision, essentially preventing the town from enforcing the new measure. In May, the Rhode Island Supreme Court, in a ruling that was critical of the superior court’s prior decision, sided with the City of Providence in a similar case, as the city had recently amended its zoning laws to prohibit more than three college students from renting single-family, non-owner-occupied dwellings together in certain neighborhoods. The Town of Narragansett, meanwhile, aware of the Providence case, had elected to wait and see its outcome before addressing its own laws. In June, the town council proposed mirroring the upheld Providence law and went to the planning board, an advisory body in this capacity, for a recommendation.
“I also have a problem with just identifying it as students,” said board member Robin Plaziak. “It just seems silly because I think summer people can be as disruptive and as disrespectful. And there are tons of students who we’ve heard from and landlords who are doing the exact right thing. They’re following the rules, they’re getting involved in the community, they’re inviting their families here and they’re buying houses here, so I don’t feel comfortable just pinning it on the students at all. I’m much more comfortable with four. I think the number is sort of arbitrary. I’m not crazy about four, but I’m really not on board with three.”
“The reason that we came up with ‘four inhabitants’ or ‘four persons’ in a structure was to avoid the bias of that word ‘student,’” said planning board vice chair Joseph O’Neill. “It’s like it’s a negative. I was a student at one time, we were all students, that just sticks in my craw.”
For college students from the nearby University of Rhode Island (URI), Narragansett, for years, has served as the unofficial town of choice for off-campus housing. As the council was preparing to take up the matter of mirroring the Providence law, URI announced it was significantly reducing its on-campus housing capacity in the 2020-21 academic year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting many students to desperately seek housing in town. The passage of the new proposed ordinance, they fear, would greatly set back and limit the number of students looking to rent in town at a time when such housing stock was needed. Some residents, on the other hand, are sympathetic to the students’ plight but argue that Narragansett has pursued such a solution for decades, adding that it is not the town’s responsibility to house students.
Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan was on hand Wednesday night, and was able to provide the board with a look into the department’s efforts with helping mitigate unruly behavior by college students in town. According to Corrigan, the police work hand-in-hand with URI in addressing these issues.
“We do have a great relationship with URI,” he said, noting that the cooperative standing between the two parties had improved with the 2017 hiring of URI’s Dean of Students Dan Graney. “[URI] provides various services. For the issues with student renters, there’s quite a bit of it that doesn’t fall within the law enforcement domain. A lot the disturbance that they create in neighborhoods are what we describe as being ‘lawful but awful’ – voices, slamming of the car doors, the carrying on that happens with the 18-22-year-old demographic that the 40-plus crowd doesn’t appreciate. We work a lot with the realtors, the landlords and URI to address some of those issues that fall outside our authority.”
The planning board also found the proposed ordinance to limit occupancy to no more than three college student renters out of line with the town’s comprehensive plan, with board members stating that the document, which guides zoning and building decisions in Narragansett, encouraged further development with local URI students, as well as further and continued involvement between law enforcement and the public community services that are supported by the town budget to coordinate with URI, its dean of students and its student body directly with regard to seasonal and full-time housing.
“You support your school,” said planning member Vincent Indeglia. “And we should because we’ve seen over the years that we’ve had many students that have taken education here, learned here, had families here and then they’ve left the state for other opportunities. I think we should be nurturing these people back and we’ve heard that from a number of people through the testimony over the past three weeks.”
The board had previously hosted over two and a half hours of public testimony on the subject earlier in July. Fleming noted the debate had brought in more written correspondence than any other topic he had ever witnessed in his many years serving on the planning board.
“I was more interested in the letters that took the emotion out of it, and just talked about the fact that this town is way better off with a student population because of the vibrancy it brings to the town,” said planning board member Donald Leighton. “My feeling right now is the message being sent in 2020, not 2021 or 2022, but the way this is written now it would be instituted immediately and that’s a very big concern for me.”
After the board’s unanimous decision to recommend rejection of the proposal, the town council will host its public hearing on Aug. 17 at 8 p.m.