EXETER – Last Wednesday, a Rhode Island Supreme Court justice ruled against the State of Rhode Island in an appeal brought forward by the Towns of Exeter and Richmond, halting the state’s plans to construct a building near Browning Mill Pond.

Both towns argued that the project–which was proposed to be constructed along the dividing line of the two towns–should have been reviewed under local procedures to determine whether it complied with their zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans. 

In his decision, Justice Gilbert Indeglia said that the state would have to ultimately follow local ordinances when planning projects, which the state argued against, due to both towns’ comprehensive plans having expired. 

Exeter Town Council President Cal Ellis said that the decision would “set precedence” with how the state would go about planning future projects, and how the state coordinated with local communities. 

“In my opinion, this has the potential for ramifications across the state, with any community that’s dealing with state initiatives,” Ellis said last Thursday, following the decision. “They need to look at this case because I believe it will set precedence.” 

In 2014, the department of environmental management (DEM) began planning the construction of the 12,000-plus square-foot building, called the Arcadia Natural Resources and Visiting Center, which was set to include office spaces, laboratory space and a visiting center. The state then accepted a bid and entered into a contract to build with the company Mill City Construction, Inc., in 2017. 

The proposed project was to be constructed along the dividing line of Exeter and Richmond, with the facility landing in Richmond and the parking lot, and wastewater treatment system being located in Exeter. The Richmond portion of the project is zoned for residential use, while the Exeter portion is zoned for open space public land. 

While planning for the project began in 2014, both towns said that they weren’t made aware of the plans for the new facility until 2017. After learning of the project, the Richmond Town Council met with DEM officials, who informed the council that the state would not agree to alter the project in any way. And the Exeter Town Council, also in 2017, sent a cease and desist letter to DEM, demanding that the project stop “until proper local permits are obtained and administrative review has been completed,” to which Exeter received no response. 

“We did not know about it until the plans to build a new [...] complex were well underway,” Ellis said. “I understand they had actually gone out to bid on the project, and the towns were never notified.” 

Both towns then requested injunctive relief from the Rhode Island Superior Court, seeking a declaration from the court that the state was required to consult with the towns and comply with their zoning ordinance, comprehensive plan and subdivision regulations. After a first hearing justice denied the request for  injunctive relief–finding that the state was “immune from the towns’ zoning ordinances”–a second hearing justice also found that the state was not required to obtain municipal approval and permits before beginning a project, denying the towns’ requests for a permanent injunction.

Following the superior court’s denial, Exeter and Richmond filed a consolidated appeal in 2019 to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. And last week, Supreme Court Justice Gilbert Indeglia ruled in favor of Exeter and Richmond’s joint appeal. 

In their appeal, the towns argued that the state, in its capacity as a developer of land, should be required to submit to local zoning procedures.

The state argued that, because Exeter’s comprehensive plan expired in 2009 and Richmond’s expired in 2017, the state was immune from being required to follow their zoning ordinances and outdated plans.  

However, Indeglia said that the state is not immune from the application of local zoning ordinances. He also pointed out that, when the state began planning construction of the building in 2014, Richmond “clearly had an approved comprehensive plan.” 

Because Richmond had an approved comprehensive plan until 2017, Indeglia said that the state should have brought the project to the State Planning Council. 

“It was not until June 2017 that Richmond’s comprehensive plan expired—three years after the point in time when the parties agree the state began planning construction,” he wrote. “Under the facts of this case it is clear to us that, although Richmond may not as of the date of the arguments in this case have had an approved comprehensive plan, the town was in compliance at the time the state should have brought the issue before the State Planning Council.”

He also said that, while Exeter has not had an approved comprehensive plan since 2009, “under the unique facts of this case and Exeter’s clear connection with the project, we additionally require that the state bring the issue of the proposed project’s compliance with Exeter’s comprehensive plan.”

Generally, when there is a conflict between a project proposed by the state and local ordinances, Indeglia said, the project must be brought in front of the State Planning Council. If the State Planning Council approves the project, the state must then apply to the municipality’s zoning board of review for relief. And if the parties remain in disagreement, an aggrieved party may then file suit in the Superior Court. 

Because the issue was never brought in front of the State Planning Council, and therefore never reviewed on the basis of compliance with the towns’ zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans, Indeglia said he was vacating the original Superior Court decision. 

The case, he said, must now be remanded to the State Planning Council for a formal hearing concerning the project’s compliance with the towns’ comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances, as the plans existed at the time each town filed suit in Superior Court.

Ellis also said that the state should be held to the same requirements as any other developer, which, in part, require projects to be in accordance with the towns’ zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans.  

“We, as the members of the town council, felt strongly that the state should be held to the same standards that other developers and residents of Exeter and Richmond are held to,” he said.  

He also said the setbacks of the wastewater treatment system, from Browning Mill Pond, appeared to be in violation of DEM’s own regulations, adding that the state should “comply with its own regulations.” 

“We discussed that, and to me, that was huge,” he said. “I believe that the State of Rhode Island needs to set an example for all of the residents of the state who try to comply with state regulations, and the first people that comply should be the State of Rhode Island and its agencies.”

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