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Town Zoning Board Rebuffed By Rhode Island Supreme Court after Denial of Special Use Permit

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.

The plaintiff appealed the board’s decision to the state Superior Court, where the court reversed the board’s ruling. The court found that the term utility substation was clear and unambiguous and that the evidence presented by the plaintiff that the Amtrak substation met the definition for purposes of the ordinance was convincing. Because the zoning board was required to enforce the ordinance as written, they had no justification for denying the plaintiff’s special use permit. After the lower court ruling, the town appealed the question to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The majority of the members of the high court agreed with the Superior Court ruling, and the plaintiff is to be issued the requested permit so the construction of the solar system can begin.

How to Best Deal with Municipal Zoning Boards

If you are seeking to initiate a development project or make modifications to your property, you may need to gain the approval of a state or local administrative agency first. Zoning boards are filled with people who have various motivations, and they may not want to, or even know how to, follow the laws that they are asked to enforce. If a zoning board denies a use permit or exemption, it is possible to appeal the ruling to state court. For the best chances of quick approval, you should retain a qualified Rhode Island real estate attorney before making your initial request. The experienced Rhode Island property lawyers with Bilodeau Capalbo are experienced in obtaining zoning approval for our clients’ projects, and we’re not afraid to bring the fight to the next level if a zoning board denies your request. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation with an experienced Rhode Island real estate attorney by calling 401-300-4055.

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