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Evergreen Estates Managing Corp. v. Town of Coventry

Superior Court of Rhode Island

January 8, 2015

TOWN OF COVENTRY; and ROBERT THIBEAULT, in his capacity as Finance Director Defendants.

Kent County Superior Court

For Plaintiff: Michael A. Kelly, Esq.; Joelle C. Rocha, Esq.

For Defendant: Nicholas Gorham, Esq.; Michael A. DeSisto, Esq.


Stern, Magistrate Judge

Before this Court is Evergreen Estates Managing Corporation's (Evergreen or Plaintiff) Partial Motion for Summary Judgment. The Plaintiff seeks summary judgment on Counts I and II of its Complaint. In Count I, the Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment that Woodland III (defined herein)—Phase IV of the Planned Unit Development (PUD)—is vested with the same rights as the other Phases of the PUD, approved by the Town of Coventry (Coventry or Defendant) on August 10, 1976, and does not require further municipal board approval to construct Woodland III in accordance with the approved PUD. In Count II, the Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment that by having a vested right in Woodland III, Coventry is prevented from assessing impact fees associated with the development of Woodland III. Coventry opposes the Plaintiff's motion, and also moves for summary judgment pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 9-30-1.

I Facts and Travel

The underlying facts of this case have been fully and fairly stated in numerous Superior and Supreme Court decisions spanning the last thirty years. See Woodland Manor III Assocs. v. Keeney, 713 A.2d 806 (R.I. 1998); Woodland Manor, III Assocs., L.P. v. Reisma, No. PC89-2447, 2003 WL 1224248 (R.I. Super. Feb. 24, 2003) judgment clarified sub. nom. Woodland Manor, III Assocs., L.P. v. Reisma, No. PC89-2447, 2003 WL 21297130 (R.I. Super. May 23, 2003); Woodland Manor III Assocs., L.P. v. McLeod, No. 89-2477, 2000 WL 276820 (R.I. Super. Mar. 2, 2000); Woodland Manor III Assocs. v. Keeney, No. 89-2447, 1996 WL 937021 (R.I. Super. Dec. 12, 1996). Therefore, this Court limits its recitation to only the pertinent facts relevant to the issues currently before the Court.

Woodland Manor III Associates, LLP (Woodland Associates) is the record owner of certain property located on Assessor's Plat 27, Lot 150, in the Town of Coventry, Rhode Island. Evergreen currently holds a 100% ownership interest in Woodland Associates. To better understand the current dispute, this Court revisits the property's development history.

In the 1970s, the Plaintiff's predecessor in interest, Mapleroot Development Corporation (Mapleroot), purchased eighty-nine acres of land on Plat 28 in Coventry, Rhode Island (Master Tract or Woodland Manor). In or around 1973, Mapleroot sought approval from Coventry's Town Council to rezone the property as a PUD. The PUD contemplated the construction of various building types to be combined and integrated as a whole. The construction at Woodland Manor was to occur in separate phases. Phase I consisted of an apartment complex[1]; Phase II included a housing facility for the elderly[2]; Phase III encompassed the building of a nursing home[3]; and the final phase, Phase IV, comprised of a multi-family apartment complex. On June 17, 1974, in connection with its attempt to receive municipal and state approval for the project, Mapleroot received a letter from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) which stated that construction on the Master Tract would not be in violation of the Fresh Water Wetlands Act, so long as construction did not fall below a certain contour.

On November 10, 1975, Coventry amended Article XX of the Town's Zoning Ordinances allowing for Planned Unit Developments (PUD Ordinance).[4] The application process to receive a PUD designation mirrored the procedure, found in Article XVIII of Coventry's Zoning Ordinances, for Planned Residential Districts. Mapleroot, in compliance with Sections 5(A)-(C) of Article XVIII, submitted a PUD application in order to develop the Master Tract.

On April 8, 1976, Coventry's Planning Commission recommended, to Coventry's Town Council, that Mapleroot's application be approved.[5] Around June 14, 1976, Coventry's Town Council and the Planning Commission received Mapleroot's final plan submission for the development of Woodland Manor. On August 10, 1976, Coventry's Town Council approved Mapleroot's final site plan for Woodland Manor[6] and the rezoning of the Master Tract as a PUD District.[7]

The developers of the Master Tract then received approval from the Department of Health to construct and operate a 3.5 mile long sewer line and pump station to carry sewage, generated by the project, to West Warwick's sewerage treatment facility. The 3.5 mile sewer system was installed on or around 1978 and was paid for by Mapleroot. The sewer was designed and implemented to service all phases of the project. During the years 1978 through 1981, Mapleroot received final DEM approval for the first three construction Phases.[8]

With all approvals in place, Mapleroot's contractor, Mast Construction, Inc. (Mast Construction), applied for and received a building permit for Phase I on January 16, 1979. Construction was completed, and a Certificate of Occupancy was issued for Phase I on March 27, 1981. On January 8, 1981, Mast Construction applied for and received a building permit for Phase II. Ultimately, Phase II was completed and was issued a Certificate of Occupancy. Finally, Mast Construction applied for and received a building permit and Certificate of Occupancy for Phase III[9], Coventry Health Center, during the early 1980s. [10]

The current controversy emanates from the events surrounding the construction of Phase IV, or Woodland III. Following the same process as for the first three Phases, Mapleroot submitted its final site plan for Phase IV to DEM. This time however, DEM found Phase IV was a significant alteration of the wetlands and refused to approve the site plan. With the threat of losing financing for the project, Mapleroot tried to rectify the problem; however, its attempts were unsuccessful, resulting in litigation between Mapleroot and DEM.

On September 30, 1992—while litigation with DEM was ongoing—Mapleroot conveyed Woodland III to the entity Woodland Associates. On February 10, 1994, the Rhode Island Superior Court found, on equitable estoppel grounds, in favor of Woodland Associates.[11] Instead of seeking a building permit for Phase IV, Woodland Associates amended its complaint, alleging damages from a temporary taking of their property by DEM. In its suit for damages, Woodland Associates stated it was "financially infeasible" to build Woodland III as originally planned.[12]Litigation between Woodland Associates and DEM lasted until 2003, when the Rhode Island Superior Court found that DEM's actions constituted a temporary taking.[13] As a result, Woodland Associates was awarded more than $4 million in damages.[14] After the litigation ended, Woodland Associates did not immediately seek a building permit for Phase IV.

Establishment of Impact Fees

In July of 2000, the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted the Rhode Island Development Impact Fee Act, giving municipalities the authority to establish impact fees. G.L. 1956 §§ 45-22.4-1, et seq. (The Impact Fee Act). The Impact Fee Act was designed to raise additional funds for public facilities serving the new municipal growth and development and to make those benefitting from the expansion pay a fair share of the cost for new or upgraded facilities. See § 45-22.4-2. On or about September 25, 2002, the Town of Coventry enacted an ordinance entitled "Fair Share Development Fees, " § 5-6 of the Town of Coventry Code of Ordinances (Impact Fee Ordinance), authorizing the assessment and collection of impact fees[15]upon new residential development. The Impact Fee Ordinance originally assessed a fee of $7596, to be divided among select public facilities, in order to ensure that such facilities could serve and handle new growth and development in Coventry.[16]

On March 1, 2005, all the partners of Woodland Associates transferred their partnership interests to Evergreen. From this date forward, Evergreen continued to pay the real property taxes and fire district taxes associated with the property. Currently, Coventry's plat map shows the Master Tract properties as separate lots.[17] According to the Plaintiff, Coventry's current zoning maps and GIS system shows the Master Tract is still zoned as a PUD.[18]

The 1991 Zoning Enabling Act and 1992 Land Development Act

In 1991 and 1992, the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted the Zoning Enabling Act and the Land Development Act, respectively. The acts incorporate standards for when an owner has vested rights in their land and describes certain elements necessary for owners to gain vested rights in a land development project. According to the Defendant, rights in a land development project vest if: the development plats have been recorded; applications for the land development project must be substantially complete; and work that is to be completed in stages must proceed on a consistent and continual basis.[19] Further, the Zoning Enabling Act considers PUDs as a type of land development project. Secs. 45-24-31(55); 45-31-31(37). Both acts require a more extensive and thorough review for applicants seeking approval for a planned development, as compared to Coventry's 1976 PUD Ordinance. On December 19, 1994, Coventry repealed the 1976 PUD Ordinance.[20]

Coventry's Amended Zoning Ordinance

Article 19, § 1901 of Coventry's 1994 Ordinance effectively repealed the 1976 PUD Ordinance. From that point forward, Article 14—as amended in 1994—of Coventry's Zoning Ordinances governs "Land Development Projects, " of which PUDs are not a permitted use. Therefore, a PUD requires approval from the Planning Board and sometimes from the Town Council. After receiving a judgment in excess of $4 million against DEM, Plaintiff waited more than ten years before seeking a building permit from the Town of Coventry. As a result of such delay, and due to the changes to Coventry's Zoning Ordinances, Coventry's Land Use Administrator informed the Plaintiff that the Planning Commission would have to once again determine whether to approve the development plans for Woodland III. The Plaintiff subsequently filed this lawsuit.

Woodland Manor's Sewer System

In 2011, the 3.5 mile sewer line built by Mapleroot before construction on the Master Tract began was sold to the Town of Coventry for $200, 000. Evergreen supported the sale of the sewer line to the Town of Coventry, dismissed all lawsuits regarding any interest it could claim in the system, and took no appeal of the sale. Coventry received possession of the system free and clear of all claims, liens and encumbrances.


Standard of Review

In deciding a motion for summary judgment, a trial justice considers the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and affidavits and determines whether these documents, when viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, present a genuine issue of material fact. Kirshenbaum v. Fidelity Fed. Bank, F.S.B., 941 A.2d 213, 217 (R.I. 2008) (citations omitted); Lavoie v. North East Knitting, Inc., 918 A.2d 225, 227-28 (R.I. 2007) (citing Super. R. Civ. P. 56(c)); Delta Airlines, Inc. v. Neary, 785 A.2d 1123, 1126 (R.I. 2001) (citations omitted). It is well settled that a genuine issue of material fact is one which reasonable minds could differ. See, e.g., Brough v. Foley, 572 A.2d 63, 67 (R.I. 1990).

The moving party bears the initial burden of establishing that no such issues of material fact exist. Estate of Giuliano v. Giuliano, 949 A.2d 386, 391 (R.I. 2008). If the moving party is able to sustain its burden, then the opposing party must demonstrate the existence of substantial evidence to dispute that of the moving party on a material issue of fact. Parker v. Byrne, 996 A.2d 627, 632 (R.I. 2010) (citation omitted); Giuliano, 949 A.2d at 391 (citing Benaski v. Weinberg, 899 A.2d 499, 502 (R.I. 2006)); Superior Boiler Works, Inc. v. R.J. Sanders, Inc., 711 A.2d 628, 631-32 (R.I. 1998). Although it need not disclose all of its evidence, the party opposing summary judgment must demonstrate that evidence beyond mere allegations exists to support its factual contentions. See, e.g., Nichols v. R.R. Beaufort & Assocs., Inc., 727 A.2d 174, 177 (R.I. 1999) (citations omitted); Ludwig v. Kowal, 419 A.2d 297, 301 (R.I. 1980). The trial judge reviews the evidence without passing upon its weight and credibility and will deny a motion for summary judgment where the party opposing the motion has demonstrated the existence of a triable issue of fact. See Mitchell v. Mitchell, 756 A.2d 179, 181 (R.I. 2000); Palmisciano v. Burrillville Racing Ass'n, 603 A.2d 317, 320 (R.I. 1992).

Under the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act (UDJA), the Superior Court possesses "the power to declare rights, status, and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed." Sec. 9-30-1; see also P.J.C. Realty v. Barry, 811 A.2d 1202, 1207 (R.I. 2002) (quoting § 9-30-1). Thus, "the Superior Court has jurisdiction to construe the rights and responsibilities of any party arising from a statute pursuant to the powers conferred upon [it] by G.L. 1956 chapter 30 of title 9, the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act." Canario v. Culhane, 752 A.2d 476, 478-79 (R.I. 2000). Specifically, § 9-30-2 provides as follows:

"Any person interested under a deed, will, written contract, or other writings constituting a contract, or whose rights, status, or other legal relations are affected by a statute, municipal ordinance, contract, or franchise, may have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the instrument, statute, ordinance, contract, or franchise and obtain a declaration of rights, status, or other legal relations thereunder." Sec. 9-30-2 (emphasis added).

A trial court's "decision to grant or to deny declaratory relief under the [UDJA] is purely discretionary." Sullivan v. Chafee, 703 A.2d 748, 751 (R.I. 1997). Further, the purpose of the UDJA is "to allow the trial justice to 'facilitate the termination of controversies.'" BradfordAssocs. v. R.I. Div. of Purchases, 772 A.2d 485, 489 (R.I. 2001) (citations omitted). It is axiomatic that "[a] declaratory-judgment action may not be used for the determination of abstract questions or the rendering of advisory opinions, nor does it license litigants to ...

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