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Roberts v. Pare

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

September 12, 2018



          GALLO, J.

         This 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.


         Fact and Travel

         Plaintiffs 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).

         The 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 ago.

         In late 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.

         As a 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[1] 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 value.

         Thereafter, 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.[2] No minutes were produced at the trial.

         On 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.

         In 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 OMA.


         Standard of Review

         Under 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.

         The 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).



         As an 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, [3] as the better-articulated claim for declaratory relief is dispositive of the case.


         Property Tax ...

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