NARRAGANSETT – Town council president pro tem Susan Cicilline Buonanno recently pulled her motion to schedule a public hearing for the town to consider increasing the number of students allowed to rent non owner-occupied dwellings together from three to four. Citing the proposed amendment’s timing, “harsh” communications with the public and the general combative atmosphere within town politics over the past several years, the town council president pro tem explained why she did not wish to see the motion play out.
“I would say the communications on the issue were pretty harsh and really not the way I’m used to working with constituents,” she said. “I think it’s really important for people to freely express how they feel and when people get borderline harsh, you want people to communicate what they think and how they feel about issues because that’s what government should do – be listening to the issues. But it goes both ways.”
“I thought maybe just let things settle back, see what happens and when and if there’s a desire to go to four [students] we can explore that,” Cicilline Buonanno continued. “I don’t want the residents to fight amongst themselves or be at odds, they’ve done that for 12 years over a library and I certainly think it’s time for the town to move forward on a lot of the issues.”
Perhaps the most controversial issue in recent times outside of the construction of a new public library in the Pier Marketplace, which Cicilline Buonanno referred to here, the topic of student rentals has confounded the Town of Narragansett for decades. State and municipal courts have ruled against any ordinance the town tries to construct in an effort to regulate the increasing number of academic rental properties, including 2016’s “four-unrelated” ordinance, which would have prohibited more than four unrelated persons from occupying a dwelling together had it not been struck down the following year by Narragansett Municipal Court Judge John DeCubellis, Jr.
Meanwhile, Narragansett has become a natural habitat for off-campus students seeking housing while attending the nearby University of Rhode Island (URI). Rental opportunities for students have subsequently eroded local single-family housing, with entire neighborhoods changing as homes turned to defacto dormitories sometimes containing eight students or more at a time, the most notable example being Eastward Look.
Cicilline Buonanno was on the council that passed 2016’s “four-unrelated” ordinance.
“I have been very clear – we agreed on the four unrelated [ordinance],” she said. “That seemed to be a number people were comfortable with and they agreed with it. I always thought four [students] was reasonable. I never liked the three.”
Last summer, URI significantly reduced its on-campus housing capacity due to restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic, largely driving up demand for local student rentals during the academic year. Simultaneously, the previous Narragansett Town Council passed a new ordinance that would limit the number of college students renting together to three. The council was acting on the heels of a Rhode Island Supreme Court decision, which upheld a similar law the City of Providence passed in 2015 before being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.
While Narragansett had been waiting on the outcome of the Providence case to decide how the town would go about student rental regulations for years, the mirroring of the Providence ordinance and its subsequent passage by the previous council, which happened just a few weeks after URI’s eviction of students utilizing on-campus housing due to the pandemic, was described as cruel by student advocates. The Narragansett Planning Board also unanimously recommended against following in Providence’s footsteps and moving to a three-student limitation.
Cicilline Buonanno did not serve on the previous council that passed the three-student limitation.
The issue has since divided the town. Residents argue for regulation and note quality of life issues, including frequent parties, loud noise and litter. Students and those who support them, including other residents, say Narragansett has been a college town for decades and that limiting the number of students allowed to rent together will do nothing to address noisy parties.
According to town solicitors, given the Providence ruling by the R.I. Supreme Court, both the three-student and “four-unrelated” ordinances would be enforceable at this time. Enforcement of the three-student ordinance, which is currently on the books, is set to begin in September.
“This ordinance came in very quickly and any time something comes in very quickly, I’m tempted to ask if that’s a good thing,” Cicilline Buonanno said. “It definitely is a trial period to see what the enforcement is going to look like, who’s going to enforce it and the cost of enforcement.”
The town council president pro tem pointed to a number of council communications that came in after her motion for the council to host a hearing on amending the ordinance from three students to four was published on the town’s website.
“Over a lot of communications about it, my sense was that people didn’t want to move fast and didn’t really want it,” said Cicilline Buonanno. “For me, I was very much in favor of student regulation and having some policy around that. I got a lot of emails, and I wasn’t sure if the timing was right…it seemed like a lot of people were on the fence about it.”
Cicilline Bounanno noted that emails and letters to the town council on the topic were not the reason she pulled the item, however.
“The town has been through a lot over the past couple of years” she said. “Narragansett is a beautiful place but there’s been a lot of adversarial fighting in the town and it’s gone beyond the issues, it got personal. I don’t think Narragansett needs to bear that burden any longer. Until people learn how to have civilized debates and disagree and be kind in that disagreement, we have work to do.”
“The people of Narragansett are just so scarred from recent years,” she continued. “People used to be able to have different opinions and that was OK and it seemed to get to the point that if you had a different opinion, people couldn’t stand you. That’s not really how government should work.”
Cicilline Buonanno also pointed to the potential of council communications with the University, acknowledging councilmembers Patrick Murray and Ewa Dzwierzynski’s ongoing talks to partner with URI in a more collaborative capacity.
“In my 20-plus years of public service, I’ve lost votes,” the council president pro tem concluded. “I know you can’t always get what you want. But there’s something to be said about the community understanding one another – we can debate and have different views and different ideas and it doesn’t mean we have to hate each other.”