Articles Posted in Real Estate

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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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Disputes between a business or property owner and a contractor, or even between a general contractor and subcontractors, can derail construction projects and result in costs far exceeding estimations for construction or renovation projects. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently ruled on an appeal to determine if an architect was entitled to contract damages for work that was never completed.

At the heart of this legal dispute lies a contractual agreement between an architectural firm and a restaurant. The restaurant hired an architectural firm to design a construction plan for renovating the restaurant property after a winter storm damaged the roof. The parties agreed that the plaintiff would prepare and deliver plans for the renovation, and the defendant made a partial payment toward the contract. According to the facts discussed in the opinion, the defendant stopped paying on the contract and abandoned their plan to use the plaintiff’s services to renovate the building. As a result, the plaintiff sued the defendant for the remaining balance due under the contract.

The court’s ruling centered on the existence of a binding contract, substantiated by a fixed lump-sum fee arrangement for architectural services. This arrangement mandated that the architect would receive predetermined compensation for his architectural work, disbursed in installments linked to specific project milestones. Regrettably, the defendant defaulted on their end of the deal, not only abandoning the contract but also discontinuing payments to the architect.

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In recent years, the development of green energy projects has expanded significantly, both in Rhode Island and nationwide. Wind and solar farms are the most common types of recently constructed renewable energy developments. As the use of fossil fuels for power generation subsides, renewables appear poised to take up the slack in our energy grids. While solar farms are a great way to generate green energy, their installation and use are often opposed by property owners and the municipal representatives who they serve. The Town of Exeter, Rhode Island recently modified its zoning ordinances to prohibit the construction of new solar farms in residential areas, a decision that was challenged at the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

According to a recently published appellate opinion, the plaintiff in the recently decided case is an energy development company that had applied in 2018 with the defendant town to develop three solar field projects. At the time the plaintiff submitted their application, which was submitted as a “pre-application,” the proposed solar farms were permitted under town zoning ordinances. A few months after the plaintiff submitted their application, the Exeter town council amended its zoning ordinances to issue a moratorium preventing the construction of any new utility-scale solar farms in residential areas. This zoning change essentially foreclosed the plaintiff from pursuing their proposed solar projects.

The plaintiff sued the town in state court as a result of the zoning change. The plaintiff argued that their right to be permitted for the construction project had vested before the town changed the ordinance. The plaintiff argued that the town did not have the power to reject their application under the new ordinances because the application was submitted before the laws were changed. The town disputed the plaintiff’s allegations, claiming that the moratorium on new construction was validly passed pursuant to the town’s emergency powers. The town argued that the number of pending applications for solar projects had overburdened the municipality and that they were unable to keep up with the permit requests.

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When a city or municipality assesses an unfairly high tax on your property, you may be unsure what to do next. Instead of ignoring the problem, it is important to act as soon as possible. In Rhode Island, a plaintiff must challenge tax assessment claims within the time specified under a statute of limitations. This term refers to a legally imposed time limit to file a claim. Recently, the Rhode Island Supreme Court determined whether the appropriate statute of limitations in a tax assessment challenge was three months or ten years, only one of which would allow the plaintiff’s claim to go forward.

The corporate plaintiff in the case, Newport and New Road, LLC (“Newport”) filed a petition in the Rhode Island Superior Court against the tax assessor of the City of East Providence. The petition alleged that the defendant conducted an illegal property-tax assessment in 2012 and an excessive tax assessment in 2013. The City argued that Newport’s claim fell beyond the required three-month statute of limitations. Conversely, Newport claimed it could sue within ten years of the defendant’s assessments based on a separate statute from the one that carried a three-month time limit. The Superior Court agreed with the City, holding that the three-month statute of limitations barred Newport from suit. On appeal, Newport argued that the lower court erred in applying the three-year statute of limitations. Instead, Newport asserted that the proper statute of limitations for its tax assessment claim is ten years, the time limit that generally applies to civil actions in Rhode Island. Additionally, Newport argued that the statute did not reference the three-month statute of limitations, meaning the court should have interpreted the “silent” statute as imposing the standard ten-year limit.

Based on its own statutory interpretation, the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of the City. While the specific section of the statute at issue did not specify a time limit, it unambiguously referenced other sections that imposed three-month filing deadlines. The court explained that Newport’s interpretation would ignore the general requirement to interpret a statute in its entirety rather than reading each section in isolation. Additionally, the three-month statute of limitations reflected legislative intent to resolve tax assessment disputes as quickly as possible. Based on the entire statute and the clear language of the section at issue, the court found that Newport’s challenges to its tax assessments were untimely due to the three-month statute of limitations that applied. This case illustrates that people or businesses that believe they have received an unfair tax assessment should file their case as soon as possible. An experienced Rhode Island real estate and tax lawyer can help you understand the applicable statute of limitations and file your case far ahead of the time limit.

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Adverse possession is a legal doctrine that can be used in Rhode Island to allow a trespasser or squatter to take legal title to a piece of real property after openly possessing and using the land for a certain period of time. Claims of adverse possession are often used to resolve disputes between neighboring property owners who may not have been complying with the officially surveyed property boundaries. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a man who owned property adjacent to a cemetery and had been using portions of the cemetery’s land for his own purposes for several decades.

The appellant in the recently decided appeal is a man who owned property adjacent to the plaintiff’s land since inheriting it from his father. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the appellant had witnessed and been involved in the use of two parcels of land adjacent to his family’s plot, which was technically owned by the cemetery. Since the appellant could remember, his family used and maintained the two plots of land as if they were the rightful owners. Specifically, one of the land plots had been used for storing scrap metal and vehicles for nearly 30 years. The other portion of land had been maintained and landscaped by the appellant and his family for over ten years.

The owners of the cemetery filed an action in Rhode Island state court against the appellant in 2018, alleging that his use of the two plots of land was an unlawful trespass and requesting that the Court order the appellant to cease use of the property and remove the trespassing structures and other items. The appellant responded to the lawsuit, alleging that he and his family are entitled to ownership of the disputed parcels under the doctrine of adverse possession.

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The unique and evolving needs of a robust industrial economy may lead to disputes over land use between neighboring property owners. Rhode Island zoning laws, and their application by state administrative and judicial bodies, are designed to fairly and effectively balance these competing interests to support local economies while preserving property owners’ rights to the enjoyment and use of their property. The Rhode Island Superior court recently affirmed a local zoning board’s decision to permit the expansion of a building within a shipyard and enable the owners to more efficiently construct large vessels needed to service offshore wind farms.

The defendants in the recently decided case include a shipyard owner, as well as the members of the local zoning board of the town of Warren, Rhode Island. According to the facts discussed in the court’s written ruling, the shipyard owner had applied to the town zoning board for a dimensional use variance, which would permit the shipyard to expand an existing building to increase the yard’s ability to fulfill new contracts for large industrial vessels. The town zoning board held public hearings on the shipyard owner’s request, where a neighboring property owner objected to the proposal. The neighboring property owner argued that the expansion was unnecessary, and would lead to increased traffic and noise around their own property.

The town council unanimously approved the shipyard owner’s application, finding that the requested permits were necessary for the owner’s business and that the objecting property owner’s contentions lacked merit. The adjacent property owner appealed the administrative ruling to the Superior Court, arguing that the zoning board’s decision was not made in accordance with the law. On appeal, the court described the factors that are used to justify the type of variance requested by the shipyard owner and found that the factors were properly considered by the zoning board. Based on the ruling by the Superior Court, the proposed building expansion will be allowed to proceed.

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If a Rhode Island property owner fails to pay their bills (mortgage, tax, utility, etc.), they may be subject to the foreclosure of the property, and they may lose title and ownership permanently. In the event of a foreclosure, the original owner does have a right to redeem their nonpayment by asking the court to set a fair price for the redemption to occur and the foreclosure to be vacated. Although it is generally cheaper for a property owner to simply pay their bills rather than wait for an opportunity to redeem a property, the right of redemption exists to protect owners who may have been negligent in the past from losing their property entirely. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently reversed a trial court decision that permitted the owner to redeem ownership of the property.

The Respondent in the recently decided case purchased a property in Providence in 2009. As a result of unpaid taxes, the city of Providence took possession of the property and sold it at auction to the Petitioner. Acting within the standard procedure, the Petitioner filed an action to foreclose on the Respondent’s property rights in the Superior Court. Under state law, the Respondent had 20 days to answer the petition and make an offer to redeem the property. The Respondent filed an answer to the petition within the 20-day period, however, the answer contained no offer or request to redeem the property. Because the Respondent’s answer contained no offer to redeem the property, the Petitioner requested that the court enter a final order foreclosing on the Respondent’s right to redeem the property.

The state court rejected the petitioner’s request, instead allowing the Respondent to amend their answer to include a redemption offer. As a result of the ruling, a redemption figure was set, the Respondent began to take action to redeem the property, and the Petitioner appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court. On Appeal, the Petitioner argued that the statute setting the 20 day deadline for making an offer to redeem a property establishes a mandatory deadline, which cannot be extended by allowing a party to amend their court pleadings. The Supreme Court agreed with the Petitioner, ruling that the redemption statute must be strictly construed, and absolutely requires any person seeking to redeem the property to make an offer to redeem the property within the statutory timeframe. Because the Respondent failed to timely make an offer to redeem the property, the law must be applied as written, and the Respondent will not be able to regain ownership of the property.

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Bilodeau Capalbo was engaged to handle an appeal of the decision from a RI Superior Court Adverse Possession trial. Bilodeau Capalbo was not trial counsel in this matter and were engaged to handle the appeal only.  Bilodeau Capalbo partner Ryanna Capalbo successfully argued the RI Supreme Court appeal on behalf of the Defendants. Contact Bilodeau Capalbo for all of your Real Estate needs in RI, MA & CT. Reads the Supreme Court Opinion by clicking the link – Union Cemetery v Foisy Supreme Ct Opinion #adversepossession #rirealestate

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Most buyers of real estate in Rhode Island are well aware of the risks involved in purchasing property in the state. The seller of property does have obligations to notify a buyer of known defects, as well as to not defraud a buyer by knowingly misrepresenting the characteristics or conditions of a property, but the primary risk lies with the buyer. Title insurance helps to alleviate the risks of a dispute over ownership or property boundaries, and buyers are encouraged to have thorough property inspections prior to entering into a purchase contract. Even when all precautions are taken, the purchaser of a property may learn that there are significant problems or defects with the property, which sometimes leads them to pursue legal action against the seller. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently addressed a case that was filed by the buyer of commercial property in Rhode Island, which alleged that the seller failed to disclose the presence of harmful asbestos roofing tiles, which were time-consuming and expensive to remove.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case purchased a commercial property from the defendant in 2012. Shortly after completing the purchase, the plaintiff discovered that the property contained a significant amount of asbestos, which would need to be removed before he could continue using the property. The plaintiff sued the defendant in an attempt to recover damages. As part of the lawsuit, the plaintiff was required to disclose any experts that he would call to testify about the issues in the case. The plaintiff’s attorney failed to meet the deadline set by the court for expert disclosure, and the defendant attempted to have the case dismissed. The court allowed the plaintiff one more chance to disclose the experts he would use, after which the plaintiff only successfully disclosed one witness. The witness disclosed by the plaintiff was a general contractor who did not claim to be an expert at asbestos or asbestos abatement. On the defense’s motion, the court entered judgment in favor of the defendant on all of the asbestos-related claims.

The plaintiff appealed the lower court ruling to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing that the proposed witness had sufficient knowledge of the relevant areas of expertise to offer an opinion on the issue. The high court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments, ruling that the basic knowledge held by the plaintiff’s expert was not sufficient to meet the bar for the required expert testimony. The court found that the plaintiff’s witness was not a qualified expert, and the lower court had properly disposed of the plaintiff’s claims relating to the existence or removal of asbestos. As a result of the high court ruling, the plaintiff will be unable to recover any damages he has suffered b y addressing the undisclosed asbestos in the property he had purchased.

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