NARRAGANSETT - The Narragansett Town Council on Monday approved the scheduling of a public hearing of an ordinance that would amend the town’s zoning laws to prohibit more than three college students from renting together. The scheduling comes after a recent decision from Washington County Superior Court found that the town, under the previous council, failed to afford the public due process when passing an identical law last year.
“Do we want [the ordinance] to be gone because of a procedural error?” asked town council president Jesse Pugh. “Let’s have the debate with this council. Let’s let the public speak on it. Let’s have an open mind and listen to both sides of the debate and then vote.”
On Aug. 17, the previous town council hosted a virtual public hearing on the proposed ordinance that lasted two hours. However, members of the public attending via Zoom still wished to speak on the topic when the public hearing was closed by the previous council. A second reading of the ordinance took place a week later, on Aug. 24, which was not open to public comment. A lawsuit was filed in Washington County Superior Court soon after by a nonprofit group of local property owners and landlords which named the town and the town council as defendants and sought injunctive relief on the ordinance.
The decision from the local superior court, rendered June 1 of this year, which granted the injunction on the ordinance, makes note of the restriction on public comment during the ordinance’s first reading and its total absence during the second reading. In Narragansett, new and amended ordinances must undergo both a first and second reading, with public comment at each, before a vote.
“At the time the public hearing was closed, the Plaintiffs had their hands raised, indicating their desire to be heard on the matter,” the ruling from RI Superior Court Associate Justice Sarah Taft-Carter states. “Several Plaintiffs have submitted affidavits attesting to this as well as providing photographic evidence in the form of screenshots indicating their desire to speak.”
“After the Public Hearing, the Town Council voted in favor of passing the Ordinance by a vote of 4-1,” the decision continues. “A second reading was scheduled for Aug. 24, 2020 which was not open to the public.”
According to the finding, 16 individuals still desired to comment on the motion at the time the public hearing was closed by the previous council. The ruling also works through multiple, previous cases from around the state and country where precedent could be applied.
“The Plaintiffs had their ‘hands raised,’ indicating they wish to be heard,” the ruling reads. “Finally, the Defendants admitted that at the time the Town Council voted to close public comment, there were members of the public with their hands raised requesting to be heard.”
“We strongly oppose this three-student limitation,” said Joe Lembo, a member of Narragansett 2100, the group of property owners identified as plaintiffs in the complaint. “We have offered multiple scenarios of compromise to the council. This ordinance would negatively impact thousands of students - they either won’t get off-campus housing or they will have to pay a lot more.”
“We are pleased with the decision,” Lembo added. “Many people were not afforded due process and their right to voice their opinions the night this ordinance was passed.”
The complicated issue is a matter of great local interest with many different groups of stakeholders, including residents seeking quality of life, students from the University of Rhode Island (URI) seeking housing in town, other residents in support of the student population, landlord associations and property owners. Specifically, the ordinance would prevent more than three college students from occupying a dwelling together unless the property is owner-occupied. Following much public debate, the ordinance was passed by the previous town council last fall after many local leases housing four students had already been signed, and the University decreased its on-campus housing capacity due to COVID-19. Because of the timing of the approval of the new law, the pending litigation pertaining to it and other factors, the town has not largely enforced the ordinance since its passage. A look at local rental properties shows monthly rent increasing or staying the same despite housing fewer students in order to make up the lost revenue. In some extreme cases, property owners were still advertising rental homes for four students despite the ordinance’s passage and before the judge’s decision.
Many have called the issue an “identity crisis” for the Town of Narragansett – residents seeking quality of life oftentimes conflict with the large student population that inhabits local neighborhoods. Meanwhile, over the years, areas such as Eastward Look and Bonnet Shores have transformed to accommodate the emerging, younger, student demographic, sometimes via five, six or even seven and eight-bedroom rental properties that some have described as “de-facto dormitories.” Property once reserved for summer vacationers or families began being occupied by students for the academic year.
The Town attempted to address these issues decades ago, but were ultimately struck down in Rhode Island Superior Court in the 1990s when a similar law was deemed unconstitutional. In 2016, after lengthy study by an ad-hoc committee on the subject, the council again attempted to solve the problem with an ordinance that would limit rental dwellings to four unrelated persons, though that too was also ruled unconstitutional when challenged in Narragansett Municipal Court the same year. The three-student law recently passed was given the green light by the previous council due to a 2020 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision that upheld a similar ordinance from the City of Providence, which was experiencing identical conflicts between residents and students in certain neighborhoods. This ordinance, which explicitly addresses three students, was mirrored by Narragansett in its most recently approved iteration. Prior to its passage at the council level, the Narragansett Planning Board unanimously recommended the law’s rejection, instead largely championing the “four-unrelated” law, which town solicitors had said would be upheld by that same Providence ruling.
Now, the new town council, elected in November, is entertaining the debate, and said it would do proceed properly this time.
“The reason why this injunction was put into place by the judge was specifically because of a procedural error during the public hearing, that was the lack of due process and the fact that the previous council president did not take public comment from everybody who had their hand up during the Zoom public hearing,” said Pugh, who also added that the ordinance was planned to be enforced this September until the recent court ruling. “It was not based on the substance of the ordinance or the merit of the ordinance in that specific ruling.”
All councilors agreed to open up the discussion once again, except councilor Patrick Murray, who has been opposed to the “three-student” ordinance from the start, instead championing the “four-student” ordinance.
“I think the three-student [ordinance] is turning three bedroom homes and causing the price per bedroom [to increase],” said Murray on Monday. “You’re eliminating affordable, smaller houses.”
The motion to schedule a public hearing on the proposed change on July 26 was approved in a 4-1 vote with Murray the lone dissenter.