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There are several reasons why a person or entity may apply for a variance, which is an exception to a zoning law. To obtain a variance to alter the dimensions of a property, the applicant might have to show that the variance will relieve a hardship based on the land’s unique characteristics. A local ordinance may exclude hardships related to the applicant’s physical or economic disability or the general characteristics of the surrounding area. In these situations, an applicant would have to tie their alleged hardship to the law to argue they should receive a variance. Recently, a Rhode Island Superior Court decision affirmed a zoning board’s approval of two variances for a historical property when the applicant cited multiple sources of hardship.

In the recently decided case, the owner of a carriage barn in a township’s historical district sought dimensional variances to build a first floor primary bedroom and a handicap-accessible bathroom. Appellants, whose property bordered the owner’s, argued that the proposed design did not demonstrate a genuine hardship. Instead, they characterized the additions as a mere design preference rather than preserving the land’s unique characteristics. At a zoning board hearing, the architect testified that she carefully considered the footprint of the proposed design, which would improve the property’s aesthetic qualities. The board granted the relief, finding that it would not alter the general character of the surrounding area. It also rejected Appellants’ alternative design proposals.

On appeal, Appellants argued, among other things, that the applicant failed to demonstrate genuine hardship because the modifications were related to her physical disability rather than the land’s unique characteristics, which violated a local ordinance. The Superior Court disagreed. Instead, it found that the board correctly determined that the applicant’s alleged hardship was not based solely on her disability but also the land’s unique characteristics. For example, by moving the property addition away from its existing footprint, the proposed design would separate the historical features from the modern expansion. Because the property was located in a historical district, the board correctly found this old vs. new distinction important to achieve a significant historical objective. Therefore, the court found substantial evidence to support the zoning board’s conclusion that the owner alleged a hardship sufficient to grant a variance.

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When a local zoning board grants a permit for a real estate project, the recipient may think they are ready to begin construction. However, receiving a permit might only be the first hurdle to clear. After the board approves your permit application, a local community member may challenge the board’s decision in court. In these circumstances, the recipient must defend the board’s conclusion based on the adequacy of the evidence they used to reach a decision. A recent Rhode Island Superior Court case highlights the circumstances when courts will defer to a zoning board’s decision.

According to the recent judicial opinion, the dispute occurred when a town partnered with an affordable housing developer to plan affordable housing within the town’s nature conservation area. The town’s Comprehensive Community Plan (CCP) requires the town to partner with accordable housing organizations and nature conservancy groups to achieve both affordable housing development and watershed preservation. Pursuant to the CCP, the housing organization applied for a permit, which the town’s Planning Commission approved. The Commission found no evidence that the proposed development would have a significant impact on the town’s watershed preservation. Challenging the decision in court, Appellants argued that the development conflicts with CCP provisions related to water conservation and population density limits in the conservation area.

Ultimately, the Superior Court upheld the Commission’s decision to approve the permit. First, the court found that the CCP unambiguously requires the town to identify parcels of land suitable for affordable housing outside of the downtown area. The CCP also allowed for increasing density in the conservation area for affordable housing so long as the development plan carefully considered public health and safety. While the CCP recognized that increased density is most appropriate in the downtown area, it did not provide that downtown was the only appropriate area. Therefore, if rejected Appellants’ assertion that the CCP prohibited increased population density in the conservation area.

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Boundary disputes can be difficult to resolve. Longtime neighbors often develop close relationships, which can grow complicated when a dispute arises. Physical boundaries like fences and trees can help separate your land from a neighbor’s, but they do not completely settle the issue. Instead, you can look to Rhode Island law to resolve boundary disagreements between you and a neighbor. The law provides various ways that parties can settle their disputes, whether by themselves or with the involvement of third parties.

First, Rhode Island law contains guidelines for fences and other property lines. RI Gen Laws § 34-10-9 requires two neighbors to place partition fences on the dividing line of their properties. The rules also contain specifications for lawful fences to be considered proper dividing lines. Under serious cases, the law also guards against fences built with a malicious intent to interfere with a neighbor’s property. If someone proves their neighbor constructed a fence with malicious intent, they may be able to receive damages and a court order to remove the fence.

Relatedly, the law also governs trees and other plants near the property line. When a dispute over trees and plants arises, the parties must first determine their ownership. If a neighbor’s tree or plant remains within their property line, the neighbor has the right to maintain it as they see fit. However, if Neighbor One’s tree crosses into Neighbor Two’s Property, then Neighbor Two has the right to trim the plant back to Neighbor One’s property line. However, if a neighbor alters any trees that are entirely within the other neighbor’s property, that neighbor has engaged in unauthorized tree cutting. Rhode Island statute § 34-20-1 imposes penalties for unauthorized tree cutting, which could result in jail time in extreme cases.

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If a child’s parents do not live together, relocation can pose difficult problems related to custody and visitation. When one parent with primary custody relocates to another state, the move may affect the other parent’s ability to visit the child. In deciding whether to grant or deny a relocation request, Rhode Island courts often determine whether relocation is in the best interests of the child. A recent Rhode Island Supreme Court case shows how courts weigh the child’s best interests when evaluating a relocation request.

According to the facts discussed on the court’s decision, a mother sought to relocate with a child to another state. The mother and father, who never married, separated shortly after the child’s birth. The family court previously granted the mother temporary custody and physical possession, and it granted the father visitation. After being furloughed from her job, the mother relocated to Massachusetts to accept a new position and lived with her parents. As a result, the mother filed an emergency motion to permanently relocate to Massachusetts with the child. Later, she accepted a third position close to her parents’ home, which was nearly two hours from the father’s Rhode Island town. In her motion, she explained that she was previously paying $2,000 in rent in Rhode Island, commuting almost two hours to work, and working long hours. In Massachusetts, she could stay with her parents, reduce her living expenses, and rely on her parents for childcare assistance. The magistrate judge granted the mother’s motion to permanently relocate to Massachusetts, finding that relocation was in the best interests of the child. The father appealed to family court, which affirmed the decision. The father then appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

On appeal, the father argued that the primary reason the mother asserted for her relocation, her new job, was no longer valid since she accepted a third position. Therefore, the father suggested that the mother should have looked for new employment and housing closer to his Rhode Island home. The Rhode Island Supreme Court disagreed. The court concluded that the family court properly found no error with the magistrate’s decision. In reaching its conclusion, the court cited the mother’s desire to be closer to her parents and save costs on rent and childcare. The magistrate appropriately recognized the mother’s desire to prioritize her son’s emotion well-being and compensated for a loss of income to spend more time with him. By contrast, the father testified that he had no family in Rhode Island who provided additional daycare for the child. While the father offered the mother financial support and intended to change his work schedule to be a primary caregiver, the magistrate properly recognized that the mother had taken more action to make herself available for her son. Finally, the court noted that the family court record reflects the magistrate’s conclusion that the father’s relationship with his son will continue. Specifically, it explained that the mother was willing to make arrangements around the father’s work schedule and keep the father informed about the child’s medical appointments. Therefore, the court found that the family court did not err in affirming the magistrate’s decision to grant the relocation order based on the child’s best interests.

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Rhode Island matrimonial law generally entitles a divorcing spouse to a portion of the other spouse’s retirement or pension assets that accrued during the marriage. This general rule appears to be straightforward, however, it can be distorted in practice. An especially difficult situation can arise when a spouse remarries after a divorce, and both their ex-spouse and current spouse may have a claim for the benefits. A division of the Rhode Island Superior Court recently decided a case in which a former spouse had sued the widow of a deceased man, seeking retirement benefits to which she was awarded in the prior divorce.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case divorced her husband in 1995. As part of a property settlement, the parties agreed that the plaintiff would be entitled to half of the man’s retirement account in lieu of an alimony award. The man remarried years later and continued to accrue retirement benefits from his employer. The man died in 2020, and both his former spouse and his widow sought the surviving spouse benefits from the man’s employer. After the employer refused to award the benefits to the ex, she sued both the employer and the widow, seeking to enforce the divorce agreement and receive the retirement benefits.

After discussing the relevant laws, the Court ruled that the widow was entitled to all of the retirement benefits. Notably, the court found that because the 1995 divorce settlement agreement was “incorporated but not merged” into the final divorce judgment, the settlement was not enforceable by the family court and instead simply as a contract between the parties. Because the laws dictating the dispersal of pension benefits superseded contractual obligations in this case, the ex-spouse did not have a valid claim over the assets.

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When it comes to utility leaks and repairs, responsibility can often be a contentious issue. Repairs and maintenance of utility infrastructure can be extremely expensive, and a property owner’s wrongful assumption that a problem is the responsibility of the utility company may be a costly mistake. A recent judicial opinion from Rhode Island sheds light on a specific case where a property owner sought to reverse a decision regarding the maintenance and repair of a utility pipe.

The case in question revolves around a property owner who filed a complaint seeking to reverse a decision by the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (PUC) that found him responsible for repairs to a leaking water pipe. Because the administrative agency involved had already issued a decision, the property owner faced procedural hurdles to have his arguments properly considered. The Superior Court’s review of administrative decisions, as governed by Rhode Island’s Administrative Procedures Act, only allows judicial consideration of administrative decisions under certain conditions. Importantly, the court’s review is limited to determining whether legally competent evidence exists in the record to support the agency’s decision. The court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the agency regarding facts or credibility.

The property owner’s primary argument was that the water pipe in question was the responsibility of the NWD and not privately owned. To support this claim, the Appellant presented several key points, which were ultimately rejected by the state court. The Court focused on the commonly accepted practice that places responsibility for water infrastructure on the property owner for any issues that may occur past the curbside shutoff valve. The water line in question had two shutoff valves, and the leak occurred in between the curbside valve and the second valve, which was closer to the property owner’s home.

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As one of the first areas of the continent settled by colonists, Rhode Island contains property boundaries that were determined centuries ago, and they may not reflect the boundaries used today. Property boundaries and disputes with neighboring landowners can often lead to complex legal issues that may be difficult to understand and apply to the facts on the ground. One particular legal doctrine that plays a significant role in addressing these disputes is “adverse possession,” which can allow a property owner to assume title to land adjacent to their own if certain requirements are met.

Adverse possession is a legal principle that has its origins in the Roman Empire, where possession of an item without a title could eventually lead to ownership if the original owner failed to claim the property. In contemporary times, adverse possession laws exist in all 50 states, providing a legal framework for resolving disputes over property boundaries and ownership. The basic premise of adverse possession is that if an individual openly inhabits and improves a neglected piece of property for a specified period, they can gain legal title to that property. In Rhode Island, this statutory period is typically set at 10 years.

One common scenario in Rhode Island where adverse possession comes into play is when a property owner discovers that a portion of their neighbor’s property, such as a fence or structure, encroaches upon their land by a few inches or more. This situation can give rise to property boundary disputes and, potentially, premises liability issues. Adverse possession provides a mechanism to address such disputes by legally transferring ownership of the encroached-upon area to the party who has openly inhabited and improved it. This can bring clarity to the property boundary, preventing future conflicts.

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Rhode Island’s stunning coastline is a treasured resource for both residents and visitors. However, ensuring that everyone has equitable access to these beautiful coastal areas can sometimes be a complex issue. The State of Rhode Island has released public guidelines to explain the interplay between public access rights and the private property rights of coastal landowners.

Rhode Island’s legal framework recognizes individual rights when it comes to coastal access. Citizens of Rhode Island have several rights, including fishing from the shore, swimming in the Sea, gathering seaweed, and passing along the shore. Sometimes the exercise of these rights is not desirable to the property owners adjacent to the shore, and conflict over what access is required or permitted occurs often.

One common source of confusion is discerning public areas from private ones. In Rhode Island, the public has the right to access the beach seaward of the mean high water mark. This mark is distinct from the high tide mark, which is important to understand. According to the State Constitution (Article 1, Section 17), the public also has the right to lateral access, which allows them to move along the shore without specific mention of the difference in the mean high water mark, however many common shore-adjacent activities allowed under these laws primarily take place above the mean high tide line, and it’s crucial to respect these boundaries.

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Governments worldwide have commonly possessed the power to seize the property of private citizens for various reasons throughout time. In the United States, the Revolutionary War was fought partly because England was using this power arbitrarily to take the property of American colonists. After America gained its independence, Congress ratified the 4th Amendment, which forbade the federal or state governments from seizing private property from citizens and residents without just cause. The government’s power to take private property for just cause is generally referred to today as the power of eminent domain.

Under Rhode Island state law, the state or municipalities are entitled to take public property from a citizen if the taking is to serve a “public purpose,” and the citizen is fairly compensated for the taking at market value. State laws also allow government agencies and subdivisions to take private property for “economic development” purposes, however, such a taking must be compensated at 150% of the market value of the property. A group of Rhode Island property owners recently made a claim before a state court, requesting that they be compensated at the increased 150% rate based on a municipality’s taking of their private property to expand a local airport.

According to the facts discussed in the recently released judicial opinion, the plaintiffs in the case are a group of property owners whose property is situated adjacent to an existing airport. The airport and city officials proposed to expand the airport, using eminent domain powers to seize the plaintiffs’ property to complete the expansion. The plaintiffs were offered compensation for the fair market value of the property. In response to the offer, the plaintiffs instead demand compensation for 150% of the property’s fair market value, arguing that the airport construction was an economic development purpose that entitled them to the increased compensation.

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In a recent judicial opinion, the question of property ownership takes center stage as the court delves into the intricacies of water distribution systems and their responsibilities for maintenance and repair. The case at hand revolves around a dispute between an individual property owner, the appellant, and a local utility, the Narragansett Water Department (NWD). The central issue revolves around the ownership of certain water distribution facilities and the associated maintenance and repair obligations.

According to the facts discussed in the recently published judicial opinion, the legal dispute originated when the Appellant filed a complaint, seeking to reverse an administrative decision and hold the NWD responsible for maintaining and repairing specific water distribution facilities. The Appellant also claimed reimbursement for repairs made and sought attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

The court’s review of the case was guided by § 42-35-15 of the Administrative Procedures Act, which outlines the standard of review for administrative decisions. The court’s role was to determine whether there was legally competent evidence to support the agency’s decision, rather than substituting its judgment for that of the agency on questions of fact.

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