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As development increases throughout Rhode Island, and the density of commercial and other development increases, conflicts and disputes can arise over access to businesses and parking. To ensure that existing buildings can maintain public access after new construction, municipalities, property owners and developers will issue easements to existing property owners, guaranteeing the use of the land for access and parking. Easements are supposed to be spelled out clearly and unambiguously in any contract that establishes an easement. In practice, this is not always the case. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently addressed a conflict between parties over an easement that was not spelled out clearly and unambiguously.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case is a tenant and operator of a medical facility that borders a development owned by the defendant in North Smithfield, RI. Until last year, the plaintiff’s property was accessible from two sides, and the plaintiff believed that they owned easements guaranteeing the two accesses to their facility. The defendant, who had recently purchased the property from another owner, didn’t want the plaintiff’s patients using one the access from the defendant’s property, and they constructed a median to block the access.

The plaintiff sues the defendant in state court, attempting to enforce a 2005 easement that would guarantee the plaintiff access to their business from the defendant’s property. The defendant responded that the 2005 easement did not prevent them from constructing the median. The defendant maintained that the plaintiff’s property was still accessible through the other entrance and that they had the right to build the median. After reviewing the contracts and evaluating the case, the court ruled that the easement language contained in the initial contracts was too unclear to render judgment at this time. Because the language of the easement is ambiguous, and the intent of the pirates cannot be presently ascertained with existing evidence, the case will need to proceed to trial before either party gets the relief they desire.

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Public utilities such as water, power and sewer service are necessary for economic development and are commonly operated by municipal authorities. In some instances, a privately constructed and owned piece of utility infrastructure may be used by a municipality, although the owner of the property/equipment should be compensated for allowing the government to use the infrastructure. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently permitted a full jury verdict of over $1 million to be awarded to the owner of a sewer system that the defendant town had been pumping sewage into without the plaintiff’s consent.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case is a company that constructed and operates a housing development in the town of Johnston, Rhode Island. The development, which was constructed in the 1970s included a sewage pipeline that would pump sewage from the residences up a hill and into the municipal sewer line. The plaintiff’s sewer line initially worked properly without issue, but as the development of the surrounding area progressed, the sewage pump repeatedly had problems. After investigating, the plaintiffs realized that the town of Johnston had been using their private sewer line and pump to move sewage from other developments. The plaintiff sued the town in state court, alleging that the town’s use of the plaintiff’s sewer lines was causing the maintenance issues, and resulted in over $1 million in damages.

After a 5-day jury trial, the plaintiff was awarded a judgment of over $1 million for the losses that they suffered as a result of the defendant’s unauthorized use of their sewage line. In a post-judgment motion, the trial court reduced the award to $100,000 based on a statutory limit to damages obtained against a government agency performing a public function. The plaintiff appealed the reduction to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing that the operation of a municipal sewage line is generally a private, not a public function and that the $100,00 damage cap should not apply. The high court agreed with the plaintiff, finding that the design of a sewer system is a public function, but the operation of such a system is private. As a result of this ruling, the plaintiff will be entitled to the full jury award plus interest.

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Rhode Island laws concerning condominium developments are designed to protect the individual owners of multi-unit residential real estate developments while allowing the development association as a whole to implement policies that benefit the ownership unit. Because the ownership of condominium developments is usually shared among two or more separate unit owners, disputes and conflicts are common. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently affirmed a lower court’s ruling that awarded injunctive relief and substantial attorneys fees to one member of a condominium association in a dispute.

The plaintiffs in the recently-decided case own one unit of a two-unit condominium structure. The plaintiffs purchased their unit from the original owners about ten years before the suit was initiated. The defendants purchased the other unit in the structure from the original owners. The controlling condominium agreement required the consent of both unit owners before making any significant structural or exterior modifications to the structure. After purchasing their unit, and without the consent of the plaintiffs, the defendants began modifying the exterior of the building. The Plaintiffs demanded that they cease the construction and filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island Court.

After a four-day trial, the superior court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The Court found that the defendants willfully ignored the condominium agreement, and acted uncooperatively throughout the process. Based on this determination, the trial court ordered the defendants to stop modifying the structure and to pay the plaintiffs over $200,000 in attorneys fees. The defendants appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the lower decision was made in error.

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Rhode Island property owners know that some of the unfortunate side effects of property ownership include utility payments and property taxes. If a property owner fails to pay taxes or utilities for a significant period of time, the jurisdiction owed the monies may seek to perform a tax sale of the property. The proceeds of a sold property would then be used to pay the owed monies to any lienholders. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently heard a case in which a man was challenging the tax sale of his property which had already occurred.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case is a man who previously owned property in Central Falls, Rhode Island. The plaintiff’s property was subject to a tax sale based upon debts owed to the Pawtucket Water Supply Board. The defendant, a real estate company, purchased the property at the tax sale. The defendant waited the requisite one year for the owner of the property to step forward before taking further action. In 2016, the defendant proceeded with an action to foreclose on the previous owner’s right of redemption and take full ownership of the property.

After the foreclosure process started, the plaintiff discovered what was happening and filed suit against the defendant, seeking to prevent the property transfer. The defendant responded that the plaintiff was sent notice of the foreclosure action, and also served by a constable. The plaintiff maintained that the defendant needed to include a “language assistance notice” with the foreclosure service documents for it to be valid and enforceable. The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments, holding that the law concerning foreclosure actions does not require the inclusion of a language assistance notice with the service documents. Although the plaintiff appealed the ruling, it was affirmed by the State Supreme Court based on a clear application of the law. Although the court did not reverse the lower decision, it did encourage the state legislature to amend the relevant law to require such notice to be served for future cases.

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When a Rhode Island couple chooses to go through a divorce, one of the largest issues for the court to determine is the division of marital property between the parties. Bank accounts, retirement accounts, and financial instruments can usually be divided relatively easily, as their fair value can be readily determined. Real estate, personal property, and business interests are also generally divided equitably, with accepted values used to offset each party’s share of the estate.

The division of business interests and real estate between parties to a divorce can become more complicated, as the appropriate values can be difficult to reasonably ascertain. Although determining the value of such property can be difficult, the law requires an equitable division of such property. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently ruled against a former husband who attempted to transfer shared marital real estate to an LLC in his exclusive possession in anticipation of a divorce.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff in the recently decided case is a woman who has been in the process of divorce from the defendant for several years. During the divorce proceedings, the defendant chose to convey a parcel of real estate that was owned by both parties to an LLC company he created in his name alone. On the plaintiff’s motion, the family court forced the defendant’s company to become a party to the divorce, and also ordered the sale of the property from the couple to the defendant’s LLC to be set aside, so that the value of the property could be equitably divided between the parties.

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With the U.S. economy appearing increasingly likely to enter a recession in the coming months, many real estate developers may face obstacles in completing projects. If demand in the real estate market drops and economic activity contracts, many development projects that may have been profitable in the past will no longer be economically feasible. Some developers will hold off on their projects until the economy improves. A Rhode Island Superior Court recently ruled on a case filed by a developer attempting to resume development on a parcel of land that had stalled after the 2008 recession.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff is a developer who sought approval in 2007 to construct a mixed-use residential/commercial complex in the town of Tiverton. In 2008, the plaintiff gained the town’s approval for construction. After the 2008 real estate crash the project was no longer feasible, and the developer sat on the property for 14 years. In 2020, the plaintiff sought to resume the project and sought additional approvals from the town.

The town zoning board rejected the plaintiff’s 2020 application, pointing to the fact that new regulations concerning stormwater would require significant changes to the plaintiff’s plan, which must then go through more strenuous steps for approval. The plaintiff appealed the ruling to the administrative board of appeals for the town, which upheld the decision. The plaintiff then appealed the rulings to state court, arguing that the town was acting arbitrarily and capriciously by denying their request without justification. Specifically, the plaintiff argued that the town’s regulations were not in accordance with Rhode Island state law, which required towns to publish and apply consistent factors in making a zoning determination.

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Rhode Island residents have the right to care for and parent their children as they choose, with some restrictions. In situations where a parent is unable or unwilling to safely care for their child, the state of Rhode Island may get involved. The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) has the authority to take temporary or permanent custody of children who are in danger of abuse or neglect. Permanently depriving a parent of their parental rights to a child is the most severe response to child abuse or neglect. This is generally reserved as a decision of last resort when efforts to encourage a parent to safely care for their child have failed. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently affirmed a lower court’s ruling that terminated a natural father’s rights to his daughter after a years-long child welfare proceeding.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the child who is at issue in this case was born in July 2013 and was brought to the attention of the DCYF shortly after her birth. The child was born with high levels of addictive substances in her system, and she required medical care as a newborn to prevent withdrawals. For the first several years of her life, the child would go between living with her parents and living in temporary foster homes, as the DCYF worked with the parents to assist them with learning how to care for their daughter.

After several years of back-and-forth, and a continual 12-month time period where the DCYF heard nothing from the father while his child was in foster care, the agency decided to seek permanent termination of the father’s parental rights. After a trial, the father’s rights were terminated. The trial judge determined that the father was not cooperative enough with the agency in making behavioral changes to allow him to safely care for his daughter. Additionally, the judge noted that the daughter was thriving in her foster home and wished to stay there permanently. With these findings, the court entered an order terminating the father’s rights, which would set up the child to be adopted by her foster family.

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Rhode Island has enjoyed a growing economy over the last several years. As cities and towns grow and development fill in the spaces of our small state, municipalities sometimes must compete with one another to encourage companies to choose their town for construction and development. Rhode Island law allows municipalities to offer tax exemptions to certain approved development projects in order to make their location more desirable. The procedures for issuing such tax exemptions can be the subject of conflict between developers and municipalities, as evidenced by a recent case decided by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

According to the facts discussed in a recently published appellate opinion, the plaintiff owns a large parcel of property within the boundaries of the town of Lincoln, which is the defendant named in the case. The plaintiff obtained preliminary approval for a development plan on the property to build over 200 homes, some of which would be classified as “affordable housing.” To make the plaintiff’s plan financially feasible, the plaintiff would need a tax stabilization agreement from the town of Lincoln.

Based on a 2003 law that gave the town council the right to approve such a tax stabilization agreement for affordable housing projects, the plaintiff submitted a proposal from the council for a tax agreement. The town council refused to consider the plaintiff’s request, claiming that such a request would require approval from the Financial Town Meeting, which is a group of citizens that meets once per year to make economic decisions for the town. The plaintiff disputed the defendant’s claim that the tax agreement needed to be approved by an FTM, pointing to the 2003 law that expressly gave the town council the right to enter into such agreements.

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Rhode Island’s economy has strengthened over the last few decades, and the economic growth that accompanies such an economy requires various land uses to support economic development. Municipal zoning boards are tasked with determining if and how a certain construction or development project should be approved. Municipal zoning boards need to consider various interests when deciding whether to approve a request for construction or development, however, the boards’ discretion is limited by the ordinances that they are obliged to enforce. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently affirmed a lower court’s decision that had rejected a town’s bid to stop the construction of a solar energy system within the municipal boundaries.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff, a solar power company, had leased a parcel of land in the town of Richmond for the purposes of constructing a solar energy system. In order to construct the system, the plaintiff needed to obtain a special use permit from Richmond’s zoning board. The town had passed an ordinance that explained the requirements for such a special use permit, which included the requirement that a “utility substation” was within 2 miles of the proposed project. The plaintiff presented evidence that a utility substation that met the requirements and was operated by Amtrak was within the two-mile requirement.

After several recesses and discussions, the town zoning board denied the plaintiff’s request for a special use permit, finding that the Amtrak substation was not a “utility substation” within the meaning of the ordinance. A controlling number of members of the zoning board ruled that the ordinance required a utility substation to be operated by the power company in order to qualify as a utility substation for purposes of the plaintiff’s requested construction project.

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Municipal housing authorities in Rhode Island have been established to support the greater public good by protecting residents’ ability to live in affordable and safe housing. Because these administrative authorities are acting in furtherance of the public interest, state laws are designed in ways to allow public housing authorities to take possession of private land using the powers of eminent domain. Private property owners who have land taken from them by a public housing authority are entitled to compensation for the fair market value of the property. The exact amount of compensation that a landowner should receive from the government as part of an eminent domain proceeding is often a source of conflict. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a landowner’s challenge to the compensation he was awarded when his property was seized by eminent domain.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case was the owner of a subdivision-sized tract of land near Providence. After constructing a home for his family on part of the land, the plaintiff sought to divide the remaining land into eight lots. Before the plaintiff started development, he was notified by the Providence Public Buildings Authority (the defendant in the case) that the municipality was seeking development rights over the undeveloped portion of the plaintiff’s land in order to build affordable public housing.

The Rhode Island General Laws outline the procedures for a public housing authority to seek development rights for private land, and in accordance with those procedures, the parties retained appraisers to determine the value of the land. After the defendant’s appraisers submitted a valuation for the development rights of the land, the plaintiff sought to compel the defendant to purchase the land outright. Although the statute allowed a property owner to demand an outright purchase, the trial judge denied the plaintiff’s request, finding that it was made too close to the date of trial, and would be unfair to the defendant. At a trial on the valuation, the judge accepted the defendant’s appraisal numbers and ordered the plaintiff to be paid approximately $500,000 for the development rights of the undeveloped property.

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