May 6, 20200

In a case seeking to settle law related to land use and zoning laws and land use policy in Rhode Island, the state Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments for two consolidated cases brought to it by appeal. Town of Exeter v. State of Rhode Island et al. No. 2018-274-Appeal.; Town of Richmond, Rhode Island v. State of Rhode Island et al. No. 2018-307-Appeal. In the cases, the Towns of Richmond and Exeter were appealing a decision in favor of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (“RIDEM”), and the Rhode Island Department of Administration (collectively referred to hereinafter as “the State”). The lower trial court held that the State was not required to seek municipal permits for a construction project. How the Supreme Court decided the appeal in this case helped resolve how intergovernmental disputes should be settled for land use and zoning decisions.

Land Use Policy and the Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Regulation Act

In Rhode Island, the Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Regulation Act (“the Act”), is a law that resulted from state land use policy makers’ desire for uniformity. State lawmakers wanted to ensure that all municipalities met minimum comprehensive plan standards and that zoning and comprehensive plans matched up. Also, the Act was also meant to provide that municipalities conform with the state-level land use policy. Finally, the Act keeps land use decision-making authority with the municipalities. So, each city or town has planning and zoning boards as well as comprehensive plans. The Act compels forward-looking plans in each municipality with requirements to update/revise, provide for public notice and comment. These plans were then reviewed by the state.

The language of the Act also provides for certain appeals processes in land use decision disputes that have been discussed in our previous blog posts.

The R.I. Supreme Court Weighs In: What Does the Act Require the State and State Agencies to Do?

In the Town of Exeter/Town of Richmond Supreme Court appeal, the State was seeking to build a new office and laboratory space for the RIDEM in the Arcadia Management Area.The building would be located in Richmond and part of the parking lot, driveway, and a wastewater treatment system, would be located in Exeter.

The towns of Richmond and Exeter asked the Superior Court to weigh in on whether the project must be approved and permitted by the towns in compliance with each’s land use policy. Namely, the towns sought a decision on whether the state must comply with their land use and zoning regulations. The towns argued that the State needed to obtain the appropriate municipal permits for the project. Also, the towns argued that case law provides the test for zoning conflicts (a “balancing-of-interests” test), while the Act itself provides the test for land use policy and planning conflicts. The State disagreed, arguing that all land use disputes are governed by the Act.

The Superior Court decided against the towns of Richmond and Exeter. On appeal, the Supreme Court decided in the towns’ favor, holding that the State must follow the process described in the Act. Specifically, the Supreme Court cited to the “Coordination of state agencies” for all intergovernmental land use disputes and what is called the Blackstone Park test for all intergovernmental zoning disputes.

Thus, the State now must follow both processes to determine whether it will have permission from the towns to complete its projects. Finally, the Supreme Court clarified the Blackstone Park test requirements. State agencies must go through the local zoning authorities before asking the appropriate court to apply the test when there is a dispute.

What Does This Mean Moving Forward?

For municipalities, this case’s decision solidifies that a city or town retains some authority to make decisions related to a state agency project located in their respective jurisdictions. This applies to instances of both land use and zoning disputes. The Act makes land use policy in the state more uniform for municipalities, and provides municipal authority to make land use decisions. However, zoning disputes with the State are governed by a different process.

For questions related to a municipality’s authority under the Act, and recourse for state action that may not conform with the municipality’s land use and zoning requirements, get in touch with us. You can send our attorneys an email or call us today at 401.477.0023.

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