March 31, 2017
Rhode Island’s Supreme Court recently issued an important decision for property rights, even though property rights were never mentioned in it.
The court acted in a dispute between a Newport neighborhood association and the Preservation Society of Newport County, which operates several Newport mansions as museums.
This dispute involved opposition to serving food in two historic mansions, the Elms Carriage House and the Marble House Chinese Tea House. The food would be pre-wrapped and prepared off-site.
The challenge came before the Newport City Council upon the society’s application for a “Victualing License,” granting the right to serve food.
Opponents argued that the zoning ordinance prohibits such food service, as it is not a listed accessory use for a museum. The society said this argument raised a zoning issue and the council had no jurisdiction to consider zoning issues on the application, only health and safety issues.
And the zoning officer, in consultation with the city solicitor, found that there was no conflict with the zoning ordinance.
However, four members of the council pressed zoning issues, even as the city’s veteran zoning officer advised they had no jurisdiction to do so.
The license was denied by a 4-3 vote, and the issue was subsequently before our Supreme Court.
It may have been an easy decision for the court to say that zoning issues were not within the council’s jurisdiction, only health and safety issues, and evidence as to health and safety was presented at the council hearing by the society.
The Supreme Court did indicate that health and safety was “required to be the focus” and that zoning issues were “a detour.”
However, the court reversed the council decision because it “failed to provide factual findings and legal grounds to support its decision.”
And therein lies the property-rights issue. Our Supreme Court reiterated that “municipal councils and boards acting in a quasi-judicial capacity must make findings of fact and conclusions of law to support their decisions.”
Most council and local board decisions deal in some form with property-rights issues, whether they be requests for zoning variances or other uses of property.
The failure to insist on such findings and conclusions in decision-making results in property owners never knowing why relief was denied, and more importantly, it allows councils and boards to avoid the rigor of ensuring that their decisions fit within the law.
In the Newport case, if the council had to make that analysis to reach its decision, it is possible it would have reached a different outcome.
The court in this case was not making new law but rather was insisting that existing precedent, sometimes more honored in the breach than the observance, be followed.
There is a reason that the last bastion of defense for property rights is our court system. n
John M. Boehnert practices real estate and environmental law in Providence.