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Little Compton Resorts, Inc. v. Zoning Board for Town of Little Compton

Superior Court of Rhode Island

November 22, 2016

LITTLE COMPTON RESORTS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
ZONING BOARD FOR THE TOWN OF LITTLE COMPTON; FREDERICK G. BUHRENDORF, JR.; GRAEME BELL; MARK SAWOSKI; HERBERT A. CASE; WILLIAM RYAN; FRANKLIN "PAT" POND; ELISABETH BEDELL CLIVE; DIONYSUS ACQUISITION LLC; BRIAN ELIASON; NATALIE ELIASON; and JOHN P. NELSON, TRUSTEE OF THE LOUISE NELSON ESTATE Defendants.

         Newport County Superior Court

          Plaintiff - Little Compton Resorts, Inc. Stephen J. MacGillivray, Esq., Thomas J. Pagliarini, Esq.

          Defendants: Zoning Board for the Town of Little Compton Frederick G. Buhrendorf, Jr. Graeme Bell, Mark Sawoski, Herbert A. Case, William Ryan Franklin "Pat" Pond • Girard A. Galvin, Esq., • Richard S. Humphrey, Esq.

          Defendants: Elisabeth Bedell Clive • William R. Landry, Esq.

          Dionysus Acquisition LLC • John A. Tarantino, Esq., • Nicole J. Benjamin, Esq., • Elizabeth McDonough Noonan, Esq.

          Brian Eliason Natalie Eliason • Christopher A. D'Ovidio, Esq.

          DECISION

          STERN, J.

         Before this Court is Little Compton Resorts, Inc.'s (Plaintiff or Little Compton Resorts) second amended complaint requesting that this Court declare that the Zoning Board for the Town of Little Compton (the Zoning Board) lacks jurisdiction to hear an appeal from the issuance of a zoning certificate brought by a neighboring landowner, and that any decision emanating from that appeal is null and void. In addition, Little Compton Resorts asks this Court to declare that the Zoning Board lacks jurisdiction to hear appeals from a response to a complaint under section 14-9.1 of the Town of Little Compton Ordinances, when the response indicates that there is no violation of the zoning ordinance. Dionysus Acquisition LLC (Dionysus), a party to this action by virtue of having an interest pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 9-30-11, [1] asks this Court to grant summary judgment to the same effect. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 8-2-13 and 9-30-1.

         I Facts and Travel

         Central to this matter is the Stone House Inn (Stone House), a four-story historic inn located at 122 Sakonnet Point Road in the Town of Little Compton, Rhode Island, Lots 3 and 4 on Assessor's Plat 9, which is owned and operated by Little Compton Resorts. Pl.'s Second Am. Compl. ¶ 1; Compl. of Elisabeth Clive and Preserve Little Compton (Aug. 17, 2016). Abutting the Stone House lies the residence of Elisabeth Bedell Clive (Clive), located at 124 Sakonnet Point Road, Little Compton, Rhode Island, Town of Little Compton Tax Assessor's Plat 9, Lot 5. See Pl.'s Second Am. Compl. ¶ 3; Compl. of Elisabeth Clive and Preserve Little Compton (Aug. 17, 2016). Both properties are located in a residentially zoned area of town, but because the Stone House predates local zoning ordinances, its commercial use is considered lawfully non-conforming.

         Little Compton Resorts purchased the Stone House in August 2015 relying on the belief that the historic business conducted on the premises constituted a legal nonconforming use, which Little Compton Resorts hoped to continue and see flourish. See Pl.'s Second Am. Compl. ¶ 9. To confirm this belief, Little Compton Resorts claims that it requested a Little Compton Zoning Officer to issue a zoning certificate with respect to the Stone House's commercial operations. See Zoning Certificate, Jan. 29, 2016.

         On January 29, 2016, William Moore (Moore), a Zoning Enforcement Officer/Building Official for the Town of Little Compton, issued a zoning certificate in response to Little Compton Resorts' request, which stated that the Stone House property is composed of two lots in a residentially zoned area of town-one of which is vacant and the other has on it two buildings-and that both lots are considered to be legally nonconforming to the local zoning ordinances. See id. The uses approved for the Stone House buildings were described as: (1) a nine-room inn with a restaurant in the basement; and (2) a three-room inn with a restaurant on the first floor. Id. Further, the certificate described the historical nonconforming uses of these buildings as follows:

"In the past 5 decades the property and main building as 9 room INN, with a Restaurant in basement. The Barn used for meetings and events and a Restaurant, the Barn basement as a spa. The intensity of use has varied in the past but except for the last 18 months the property has been primarily open for 10-12 months a year with no restrictions on the amount of events. I will add that entertainment or music has been primarily been [sic] held indoors historically." Id.

         The certificate concludes with the sentence: "Per Town of Little Compton Zoning Ordinance 14-9.1 any determination of the Building Official may be appealed to the Zoning Board in accordance with subsection 14-9.7." Id. The issuance of the January 29, 2016 certificate has not been challenged.

         Thereafter, Little Compton Resorts applied for an entertainment license with the Little Compton Town Council (Town Council). See Pl.'s Second Am. Compl. ¶ 11. In the process of reviewing and approving the application, the Town Council requested that Moore issue another zoning certificate with respect to the nonconforming uses conducted on the Stone House premises. See id.; see also Town of Little Compton Ordinances 6-7.3. This ultimately led to Moore issuing a zoning certificate dated May 2, 2016, which "explain[ed] the historical uses of the [Stone House] and the existing building uses together with the use of a Temporary Membrane Tent." Zoning Certificate, May 2, 2016. The May 2, 2016 certificate confirmed the uses described in the January 29, 2016 certificate and supplemented the January 29, 2016 certificate to the extent that the Stone House has historically provided "entertainment, [and] gatherings, . . . includ[ing] weddings and similar events, " which have historically occurred less than forty-five times per calendar year, each event having no more than 175 people. Id. The May 2, 2016 certificate further stated that the use of a temporary membrane tent "would be considered in conformance with this Zoning Certificate and the historical uses of the property" and provided a specific description of the materials such tents could be constructed of to remain in line with the historic uses of the property. See id.

         Unsatisfied with the May 2, 2016 zoning certificate, Clive filed an application to appeal its issuance pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 45-24-54 and section 14-9.1(a) of the Town of Little Compton Ordinances (Ordinances), and on June 15, 2016, the Zoning Board held a hearing during which they ultimately concluded that the Zoning Board had jurisdiction to hear the appeal. See Clive's Appeal of Zoning Official's May 2, 2016 Zoning Certificate (Zoning Bd. Hr'g Tr. 85-86, June 15, 2016). In addition, on August 17, 2016, Clive filed a complaint with Moore pursuant to section 14-9.1(a) of the Ordinances arguing against the scope of the uses outlined in the May 2, 2016 Zoning Certificate. See Pl.'s Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 15-16.[2] In response, Moore responded with a letter dated September 2, 2016-not labeled as a zoning certificate-reiterating the contents of the May 2, 2016 certificate. See id.

         Across town, Dionysus-the owning and operating entity of Carolyn's Sakonnet Vineyard (the Vineyard)-had also requested the issuance of a zoning certificate to confirm its current, legal nonconforming uses. See Zoning Certificate, Mar. 9, 2016. On March 9, 2016, a zoning enforcement officer reissued a zoning certificate originally dated August 24, 2011, which stated in relevant part that: (1) the buildings and uses on the Vineyard's premises are in compliance with Zoning Ordinances; (2) the Vineyard is in a location zoned for residential use; (3) the Vineyard is approved to be used as a Winery; and (4) "due to the fact the [Vineyard] owners have an entertainment license from the Town of Little Compton and the proper State of Rhode Island licenses to serve wine, " the Vineyard is permitted to host "larger wedding type functions[, which] is to be considered in compliance with the Town of little [sic] Compton Zoning Ordinance." Id. The certificate concluded with the statement that "[p]er Town of Little Compton Zoning Ordinance 14-9.1 any determination of the Building Official may be appealed to the Zoning Board in accordance with subsection 14-9.7." Id.

         Brian and Natalie Eliason (the Eliasons), whose property neighbors the Vineyard, filed a purported appeal from the reissuance of the zoning certificate with the Zoning Board. See Application to Zoning Board, Apr. 8, 2016. The matter was scheduled to be heard on June 15, 2016, and at that hearing, counsel for the Eliasons requested a continuance from the Zoning Board Chairman, Frederick G. Buhrendorf, Jr. See The Eliasons' Appeal of Zoning Official's Mar. 9, 2016 Zoning Certificate (Zoning Bd. Hr'g Tr. 4:13-17, June 15, 2016). Chairman Buhrendorf allowed the Eliasons a one-month continuance to submit to the Zoning Board "a more definitive statement for the appeal, "[3] but the Eliasons submitted no such statement. Id. at 4:5-17. Instead, the Eliasons filed a new appeal to the Zoning Board on August 22, 2016. See Application to Zoning Board, Undated. Like Clive, the Eliasons also filed a complaint with Moore on July 29, 2016 pursuant to section 14-9.1 of the Ordinances and in response, Moore replied with a letter entitled "Zoning Determination from Complaint, " in which Moore further specified the scope of the challenged uses and ultimately concluded that the Vineyard was in compliance with the Town's Zoning Ordinances. See Zoning Determination from Complaint, Aug. 15, 2016.

         On July 11, 2016, Little Compton Resorts filed a complaint requesting a declaratory judgment in the Superior Court, asking that this Court declare that the Zoning Board lacks jurisdiction to hear appeals from the issuance of zoning certificates and/or that the Zoning Board's decision emanating from the challenged zoning certificate is null and void. Little Compton Resorts also asks this Court to declare that the Zoning Board lacks jurisdiction to hear appeals from "determinations" made by a zoning enforcement officer in response to a complaint filed under section 14-9.1 of the Ordinances when the response indicates that there is no violation of the town's zoning ordinances. Dionysus requests that this Court enter summary judgment to the same effect. In response, the Zoning Board, Clive, and the Eliasons ask that this Court summarily dispose of Little Compton Resorts' complaint seeking a declaratory judgment, asserting that the Zoning Enabling Act, §§ 45-24-1 et seq. (the Enabling Act), grants the Zoning Board jurisdiction to hear appeals from the issuance of a zoning certificate.[4] As all of these motions raise common legal issues, the Court decides the motions and Little Compton Resorts' request for declaratory judgment simultaneously. Jurisdiction is pursuant to §§ 8-2-13, 8-2-14(a), and 9-30-1. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for declaratory relief.

         II Jurisdiction and Review

         Under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, §§ 9-30-1 et seq., the Superior Court "shall have power to declare rights, status, and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed." Sec. 9-30-1. "The obvious purpose of the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act is to facilitate the termination of controversies" or otherwise remove uncertainties. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co. v. E.W. Burman Inc., 120 R.I. 841, 845, 391 A.2d 99, 101 (1978); see § 9-30-5. In addition, the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act is intended to be remedial in nature, and should be liberally construed and administered. See § 9-30-12; Fireman's Fund Ins. Co., 120 R.I. at 845, 391 A.2d at 101. A court's decision to issue a remedy under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act falls within the trial justice's broad discretionary authority. Cruz v. Wausau Ins., 866 A.2d 1237, 1240 (R.I. 2005); Woonsocket Teachers' Guild Local Union 951, AFT v. Woonsocket Sch. Comm., 694 A.2d 727, 729 (R.I. 1997). Preliminarily, the Court must determine whether an actual controversy exists in order to grant Little Compton Resorts its requested relief under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act. See Providence Teachers Union v. Napolitano, 690 A.2d 855, 856 (R.I. 1997). As an initial matter, the Court first finds that there exists a justiciable controversy as to whether there exists a right to appeal a zoning certificate under the Enabling Act or a response to a complaint under the Town of Little Compton's Zoning Ordinances.

         III Analysis

         The issues this Court faces today come by the crossway of several sections of the Enabling Act governing the enforcement and administrative powers of zoning enforcement officers, the issuance of zoning certificates, the appellate jurisdiction of zoning boards, and the standing requirements for appellants. Additionally, this Court is faced with language in Little Compton's Zoning Ordinances governing a complaint process to a zoning enforcement officer, which is not found within the language of the Enabling Act.

         A Administration and Enforcement

         The Enabling Act defines a zoning certificate as "[a] document signed by the zoning enforcement officer, as required in the zoning ordinance, that acknowledges that a use, structure, building, or lot either complies with, or is legally non-conforming to, the provisions of the municipal zoning ordinance or is an authorized variance or modification therefrom." Sec. 45-24-31(70). The power to issue a zoning certificate is granted under § 45-24-54, a subsection of the Enabling Act that also delineates certain ...


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