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Rhode Island Supreme Court Reverses Zoning Board’s Denial of a Special Use Permit

As state and municipal zoning and land use laws change and evolve, property owners can be placed in a difficult position if the intended use of their property becomes disallowed at some point because of the passage of a new law or regulation. To protect property owner’s rights, Rhode Island law permits owners to seek special use permits or other zoning variances which allow them to proceed with construction or other property uses which may not be permitted under current laws. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently reversed a zoning board’s denial of a property owner’s application for a special use permit to construct a septic system and house on a parcel of real estate.

In the recently decided case, the plaintiff owned a parcel of land in the town of Charlestown, Rhode Island. The parcel, which was slightly larger than one acre, was originally created as part of a subdivision project in the 1970s. Since the plaintiff purchased the parcel, the town increased the required lot size for home construction to three acres, making the parcel nonconforming for development under the new regulations. In order to proceed with construction on the property, the plaintiff applied for a special use permit and dimensional variance to allow them to construct a septic system and place a house on the parcel. The plaintiff first obtained a permit from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for the construction plans and later sought the permit and variance from the town zoning board.

Although the Department of Environmental Management had approved the plaintiff’s plans, the zoning board disagreed with their conclusion and refused to grant the plaintiff the requested permits, effectively stopping the construction plans. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit with the Superior Court, where the zoning board’s decision was upheld. The plaintiff appealed the Superior Court ruling to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the zoning board was required to accept the Department of Environmental Management’s decision to approve the construction of the septic system.

On appeal, the high court agreed with the plaintiff that the zoning board could not simply ignore the Department of Environmental Management’s judgment without further expert testimony and factual findings to the contrary and held that the board’s decision to deny the special use permit was inappropriate. The court did accept the board’s decision to deny the plaintiff’s requested dimensional variance for the construction of the home, noting that the plaintiff did not pursue all of the available measures to seek approval for construction before requesting the variance. As a result of the high court rulings, the plaintiff will be permitted to construct a septic system on the property, and with additional efforts, should be able to obtain permits for building a home as well. However, the home they are allowed to construct may not meet all of the specifications that they initially desired.

A Rhode Island Real Estate Law Firm You Can Trust

If you are a property owner looking to develop a piece of property and facing zoning issues or other obstacles to obtaining permits for your construction, zoning laws are not always as they seem. A skilled Rhode Island real estate attorney can help you present the strongest case for exceptions, variances, and special use permits to allow you to develop your land. If a zoning board has denied your request, there are additional options to challenge their decision and regain the right to use your property as you see fit. The experienced Rhode Island real estate attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo are dedicated to helping our clients with complicated and frustrating property issues, especially when municipalities or the state get in the way. Contact our offices today at 401-300-4055 to schedule a free consultation and discuss your case.

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