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Key v. Brown University

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 27, 2017

Stephen L. Key et al.
v.
Brown University et al.

         Providence County PC 12-4449 Superior Court Associate Justice William E. Carnes, Jr.

          For Plaintiffs: Justin T. Shay, Esq. Leah L. Miraldi, Esq.

          For Defendants: Andrew M. Teitz, Esq. Lisa Dinerman, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Paul A. Suttell Chief Justice.

         The plaintiffs, Stephen L. Key, as Trustee of the Stephen L. Key Trust - 2008 (the trust), and individually (Key), and Melanie D. Mitchell (collectively, plaintiffs), appeal from a judgment entered in Superior Court in favor of the defendants, Brown University (Brown or Brown University) and the City of Providence (the city). The first count of the plaintiffs' verified second-amended complaint, which is the sole issue on appeal, sought a declaration that Brown University's construction of an artificial-turf field hockey field with attendant bleachers, press box, electronic scoreboard, and public-address system was an unlawful use under the Providence zoning ordinances. Ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing to seek such a declaration, a Superior Court justice granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment as to count 1 and entered judgment pursuant to Rule 54(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons explained herein, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         Although the issue before us is narrow (viz., whether plaintiffs have standing to pursue a claim for declaratory relief), we find it useful to set forth the nature of the controversy in some detail. This case arises from Brown University's project to undertake various renovations to the Wendell R. Erickson Athletic Complex (the complex) in Providence. The complex is located at the corner of Hope Street and Lloyd Avenue in the city's East Side. Brown University purchased the complex in 1957 and has utilized it for the purpose of athletics for more than fifty years. The plaintiffs Key and Mitchell are husband and wife and reside in a 19th century Victorian house owned by the trust (the property). The property is located in the Stimson Avenue Historic District and abuts the field hockey field. At the time Key moved into the property in 1995, the complex had been in use for athletics and entertainment purposes for several decades.

         In 2010, Brown University was in the preliminary phase of planning several renovations to the complex, including the replacement of a practice soccer field with a new field hockey field. The following spring, Brown University organized several community forums to discuss the proposed project with residents from the surrounding neighborhood. These forums provided an opportunity for the community to raise "questions and concerns" regarding the proposed renovations before the plans were submitted to the city for approval. Key was aware of a forum but chose not to attend. In or about May 2011, Brown University submitted an amendment to its Institutional Master Plan (IMP) to the Providence City Plan Commission (CPC), seeking approval for the various renovations to the complex. According to plaintiffs, the IMP included a sketch depicting the field hockey field in a different location from where it was subsequently constructed, and it failed to indicate that the field would include a grandstand, press box, electronic scoreboard, and a public-address system. The IMP did state that the project would include:

"1) the replacement of the existing natural-turf practice soccer field just south of Stevenson Field with a new Astro[T]urf field for field hockey;
"2) the replacement of the existing natural-turf on Stevenson Field with Field-turf to allow soccer and lacrosse teams to practice on the field as well as play games;
"3) the replacement of the existing lights on Stevenson Field with more efficient and lower glare fixtures;
"4) the replacement of the existing bleachers (1500 seats) on Stevenson Field with a new 2000 seat stadium with restrooms, concessions, and ticketing;
"5) the construction of a new 300-350 space parking garage immediately adjacent and hidden behind the stadium;
"6) the installation of 'neck-downs' and a flasher on Lloyd Avenue to ensure safe pedestrian crossings near Moses Brown;
"7) the replacement of an existing damaged storm sewer line running beneath the fields; and
"8) repair of the traffic light at the intersection of Hope Street/Lloyd Avenue/Brook Street to increase efficiency of the intersection."

         Later that summer, on July 19, 2011, the CPC, pursuant to Article IX, § 903.4 of the City of Providence Zoning Ordinances of 1994, as amended, held a public hearing to discuss Brown University's IMP.[1] According to the city, the CPC had previously provided all notice required by law-i.e., the Providence zoning ordinances and the Rhode Island Zoning Enabling Act (the act).[2] Nevertheless, Key did not attend the meeting nor did he provide the CPC with any written objections.[3] At the meeting, the IMP was discussed by city officials and interested parties. As noted above, however, the IMP did not include certain features that form the core of plaintiffs' current controversy with Brown-specifically, the scoreboard, bleachers, press box, public-address system, and the correct location of the field. The IMP was approved by the CPC on July 22, 2011. Once approved, there was a twenty-day statutory period for an appeal to be filed to the board. The plaintiffs, however, did not appeal this decision.

         The following spring, on April 11, 2012, before construction commenced, Brown University held an additional community forum to discuss the project with neighbors directly abutting the complex. On this occasion, Brown University hand-delivered letters, dated April 4, 2012, to its closest neighbors to be affected by the construction in the complex. In the letter, Brown University indicated that the forum was to "present[ ] details about the Stevenson Field improvement project, planned for May - September 2012." In particular, the letter stated that Brown would "be discussing the scope, timeline, details, and mitigation measures involved in the project, which [would] include installing a regulation field hockey field (AstroTurf) on the field just east of Meister Kavan, [and] resurfacing Stevenson Field with Field-Turf" among other things. Key acknowledges that he received the hand-delivered letter putting him on notice of the forum; but, nonetheless, he did not attend.[4] According to Brown University, construction on the complex began in May 2012.

         On June 7, 2012, Brown University applied for a building permit for construction of athletic field bleachers at the complex. The permit issued described that Brown was permitted to build a field hockey stadium, a foundation for sport bleachers, and all related site works to construct open bleachers seating with a capacity of 505 occupants and "a combustible ...


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