matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs Christopher and
Jessica Roberts' (the Roberts' or Plaintiffs)
Petition for Relief from Assessment, in which they challenge
the assessment levied by the Woonsocket Tax Assessor Elyse M.
Pare (the Assessor or Ms. Pare) regarding their residential
real estate at 507 Rhodes Avenue in Woonsocket, Rhode Island
and designated as Plat 1, Lot 6 (the Property) on the records
of the Tax Assessor. More specifically, Plaintiffs claim that
the Assessor and the Woonsocket Board of Assessment Review
(the Board) erred in refusing to take into account the
homestead exemption for single-family homes. Instead, the
Assessor and the Board applied the lesser exemption available
to two-family homes. Plaintiffs' complaint also seeks a
declaration of their eligibility for the single-family
homestead exemption. Additionally, Plaintiffs allege a
violation of the Open Meetings Act (the OMA), G.L. 1956
§§ 42-46-1 et seq., by the Board. This
matter was tried on August 6, 2018. Jurisdiction is pursuant
to G.L. 1956 § 9-30-1 and § 42-46-8.
own residential real property at 507 Rhodes Avenue, also
known as Plat 1, Lot 6, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The
Property is approximately 1.79 acres in size and has situated
thereon two structures: a principal, single-family residence
occupied by Plaintiffs (the Principal Residence), and a much
smaller, 600 square foot, one-bedroom residence occupied by
Mr. Roberts' grandparents (the Accessory Residence).
Accessory Residence was originally used as a barn in which
farm equipment and horses were kept and later converted into
living space. The Property has been in Mr. Roberts'
family for more than a century, and Plaintiffs purchased the
Property from Mr. Roberts' grandparents several years
2013, shortly after purchasing the Property, Plaintiffs
contacted Christopher Celeste (Mr. Celeste), who was the City
Tax Assessor at the time, to learn what they would need to do
to obtain a homestead exemption for the Property. Mr. Celeste
advised Plaintiffs that they would need to seek a special use
permit for an accessory dwelling unit, and that if the Zoning
Board of Review of the City of Woonsocket (Zoning Board)
approved, Plaintiffs would qualify for the single-family
exemption. Plaintiffs sought a special use permit from the
Zoning Board for the Accessory Residence to be used as an
accessory family dwelling. Plaintiffs' application was
approved by the Zoning Board, and Mr. Celeste applied the
single-family exemption to Plaintiffs' property taxes.
matter of practice in Rhode Island, each structure on a piece
of land is assessed separately for purposes of property
taxes, and then added to the value of the land on which the
structures sit. Here, the Principal Residence is assessed at
a value of $84, 400, the Accessory Residence is assessed at a
value of $27, 200, and the land is assessed at a value of
$49, 500, for a total property value of $161, 100. (Property
Record Card.) These valuations are not disputed in this case.
Mr. Celeste applied the 30% single-family homestead
exemption to the total value of the Property,
i.e., the exemption was applied to the sum of the
Primary Residence's assessed value, the Accessory
Residence's assessed value, and the land's assessed
a new Tax Assessor was appointed by the City-Ms. Pare. In the
course of a general review of homestead exemptions within the
City, Ms. Pare disagreed with Mr. Celeste's decision to
apply the single-family exemption to the Property, and
instead applied the 10%, two-family exemption to the total
value of the Property. Plaintiffs appealed her decision to
the Woonsocket Tax Board of Assessment Review (the Board).
The Board conducted a public meeting on March 21, 2017,
during which it heard Plaintiffs' appeal. At that
meeting, there were no deliberations or discussion by the
Board's members as to the merits of Plaintiffs'
appeal, nor was a vote taken. The Assessor testified that it
was common practice for the Board to hear an appeal one month
and then deliberate and vote at the following meeting to
allow the members the opportunity to view the subject
property in person. She testified that there was
"probably" another meeting sometime in April at
which the Board voted on Plaintiffs' appeal. The Assessor
testified that she believed that if there were minutes kept
that they would have been submitted to the Secretary of State
and posted on the website. No minutes from that meeting were
posted on the Secretary of State's website, nor was the
meeting noticed on the Secretary of State's website as
required by law. No minutes were produced at the trial.
April 25, 2017, the Board mailed a two-sentence decision to
Plaintiffs denying their appeal after purporting to give the
matter its "full consideration[.]" (Board Decision,
Apr. 25, 2017.) The Board's decision does not articulate
the basis of its conclusion, nor does it note the votes of
its members or when-or even if-deliberations occurred.
Id. Mr. Roberts unsuccessfully attempted to obtain
minutes of any April 2017 meeting, and he also checked the
Secretary of State's website for same to no avail. Mr.
Roberts also attended the Board's next
regularly-scheduled meeting, which was several months later,
and the Board did not discuss Plaintiffs' appeal or the
action the Board took thereon at that time.
their Petition for Relief from Assessment, Plaintiffs allege
that by failing to apply the single-family homestead
exemption, the City levied an illegal tax on the Property.
Plaintiffs also seek a declaration that the Property is
subject to the single-family exemption. Finally, Plaintiffs
allege an OMA violation because the Board did not publicly
deliberate or vote on their appeal, but instead appears to
have conducted a non-public meeting for that purpose, and
failed to maintain minutes of that meeting as required by the
the Uniform Declaratory Judgments 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, Inc. v. Barry, 811 A.2d 1202, 1207 (R.I. 2002)
(quoting § 9-30-1). The UDJA provides in pertinent part:
"[t]he validity or applicability of any rule may be
determined in an action for declaratory judgment in the
superior court of Providence County, when it is alleged that
the rule, or its threatened application, interferes with or
impairs, or threatens to interfere with or impair, the legal
rights or privileges of the plaintiff. The agency shall be
made a party to the action. A declaratory judgment may be
rendered whether or not the plaintiff has requested the
agency to pass upon the validity or applicability of the rule
in question." Sec. 42-35-7.
Court's power under the UDJA is broadly construed, and
allows the trial justice to "facilitate the termination
of controversies." Malachowski v. State, 877
A.2d 649, 656 (R.I. 2005). Further, it is well-established
that 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).
initial matter, this Court notes that Plaintiffs'
three-count petition in this case seeks both declaratory
relief as well as relief from the assessment of taxes they
claim are illegal. In their pretrial memorandum, Plaintiffs
reference only two counts and focus largely on their request
for a declaration of rights as to the Property's
eligibility for a single-family exemption. Given this
Court's view of the issues presented, either vehicle
appropriately responds to the core inquiry in this case, and
a ruling on either procedural mechanism will have the same
effect. As such, this Court need not discuss the statutory
remedy provided in G.L. 1956 § 44-5-26,  as the
better-articulated claim for declaratory relief is
dispositive of the case.