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Rhode Island Supreme Court Holds that Charter Schools are Public Schools for Zoning Purposes

Municipalities in Rhode Island use zoning laws to encourage specific types of buildings and businesses to prosper in certain areas of the municipality. Specifically, cities can use zoning districts to exclude certain uses and types of construction from areas of a city that have been reserved for a specific use as part of a larger growth plan approved by a municipal council. A dispute over whether a privately operated charter school could be built in a commercial zoning district made its way to the state Supreme Court and was recently decided in favor of the school.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case was the city of Woonsocket, which filed suit against a charter school that was run by a nonprofit organization. The school had previously gained approval from a city zoning official to build a location in the central business district of Woonsocket, and the plaintiffs did not want the school to exist at that location. The plaintiff sued in state court, alleging that the zoning approval should not have been granted by the official. The city argued that the district where the school would be located was for commercial development only and that nonprofit or private schools were specifically excluded from the zoning permissions for that location.

The defendant school, as well as the zoning official who approved the construction, argued that charter schools are in fact public schools under state law. Public schools are permitted in a commercial district as part of a municipal exception. The defendants demonstrated to the trial court that several areas of the state law classify charter schools as public schools and that a public school should and would be permitted at the proposed location. The plaintiffs’ claim that non-profit schools are not to be allowed in the district was rejected by the trial judge.

The plaintiff appealed the trial judge ruling to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the trial judge’s decision. Because there was no specific language in the municipal zoning statute addressing whether charter schools should be classified as public schools or not, the Court deferred to the other areas of state law that unequivocally state that charter schools are public schools. As a result of the high court ruling, the construction of the charter school will be permitted to continue.

Have You Encountered a Rhode Island Zoning Issue?

If you or your business are seeking to purchase or build property and have questions about zoning use, it’s important to get answers before incurring unnecessary expenses to gain approval for your proposed use. Municipal zoning laws are not always cut and dry, and any questions about a proposed use in a certain zoning district should be brought to an experienced Rhode Island real estate attorney. The Rhode Island property lawyers at Bilodeau Capalbo understand zoning issues and can advise you as to the best course of action to gain approval for your proposal. Our lawyers can also represent you in seeking an exemption from zoning requirements or challenging a municipal decision denying your proposal. If you want to discuss your plans with a qualified attorney, call us at 401-300-4055 to set up a no-obligation consultation.

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