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Morse v. Minardi

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 3, 2019

Gary M. Morse
Michael R. Minardi, in his capacity as the Town of Barrington Tax Assessor, et al.

          Providence County Superior Court (PC 14-1949), (PM 14-1950) Luis M. Matos Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiff: Gary M. Morse, Pro Se.

          For Defendants: Anthony De Sisto, Esq. Amy H. Goins, Esq. Michael A. Ursillo, Esq. Peter F. Skwirz, Esq.

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


          Gilbert V. Indelgia, Associate Justice.

         In these actions challenging the assessment of alleged illegal taxes, the plaintiff, Gary M. Morse (Morse), appeals pro se from judgments entered in favor of the defendants, various officials of the Town of Barrington, Rhode Island (Barrington); Sweetbriar, LP (Sweetbriar); and East Bay Community Development Corporation (East Bay) (collectively defendants). This matter came before the Court on May 1, 2019, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised should not be summarily decided. After considering the arguments set forth in the parties' memoranda and at oral argument, we are convinced that cause has not been shown. Thus, further argument or briefing is not required to decide this matter. For the reasons outlined below, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court in the declaratory judgment action and deny and dismiss the appeal in the tax appeal action.


         Facts and Travel

         These appeals involve the real estate taxes on several properties and property owners. Morse is the owner of property located at 2 Westwood Lane in Barrington. Sweetbriar is the owner of a low and moderate income housing development, which is located on Washington Road and Bay Spring Avenue in Barrington (the Sweetbriar development).[1] East Bay is currently the owner of the Palmer Pointe housing project, located at Sowams Road in Barrington (the Palmer Pointe project).

         This controversy's roots formed in August 2003, when East Bay applied to the Barrington Zoning Board of Review (the board) for a comprehensive permit to develop fifty units of low or moderate income housing in Barrington. East Bay Community Development Corporation v. Zoning Board of Review of Town of Barrington, 901 A.2d 1136, 1141 (R.I. 2006). East Bay's application went before the board, which denied the application in May 2004, reasoning, inter alia, that the project did not conform to Barrington's comprehensive plan. Id. at 1141-42. East Bay appealed the board's decision to the State Housing Appeals Board (SHAB) pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 45-53-5. Id. at 1143. The SHAB reversed the board's decision because it "was not consistent with local needs and did not weigh the state's need for low and moderate income housing against some of the other concerns that were raised in opposition to the proposal." Id. Barrington appealed to this Court, and we affirmed SHAB's decision. Id. at 1140-41.

         On December 2, 2008, after final plan approval for the Sweetbriar development was granted, the Barrington town council granted Sweetbriar a tax of 8 percent of gross rental income, pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 44-5-12(a)[2] and 44-5-13.11.[3] Subsequently, East Bay filed an application with Barrington in March 2013 to develop another low and moderate income housing development in Barrington, known as Palmer Pointe. In August 2013, Barrington granted comprehensive permits for the Palmer Pointe project.

         However, Morse was unhappy with the tax assessments that the Sweetbriar development had received; he was also concerned that Barrington was considering applying the same assessment formula to the Palmer Pointe project. Arguing that the Barrington tax assessor had overtaxed his property for the 2012 tax year, as a result of under taxing the Sweetbriar development, on September 4, 2013, Morse filed an appeal to the Barrington tax assessor, pursuant to § 44-5-26. The Barrington tax assessor denied Morse's tax appeal on October 19, 2013. Morse then appealed that denial to the Barrington Tax Board of Review. On February 26, 2014, the Barrington Tax Board of Review denied Morse's appeal; the denial was recorded on March 20, 2014. Subsequently, on April 18, 2014, Morse timely filed a complaint in the Superior Court appealing his assessment pursuant to §§ 44-5-26 and 44-5-27 (the tax appeal action). On the same day, Morse filed a separate declaratory-judgment action in the Superior Court (the declaratory-judgment action) against the same defendants as in the tax appeal action in addition to East Bay, as developer of the Palmer Pointe project.

         Morse filed amended complaints in each action on June 20, 2014. In Morse's amended complaint for the tax appeal action, he asserted that Barrington had unlawfully taxed the Sweetbriar development at the lower 8 percent of gross rental income rate under § 44-5-13.11 instead of the tax rate for the total valuation of the property. Morse asserted that Sweetbriar was not entitled to the lower tax rate because the property had not undergone "substantial rehabilitation" as required by § 44-5-13.11. He argued that this was so because the Sweetbriar development was a newly-constructed complex, and § 44-5-13.11, he contended, applied only to preexisting buildings. Morse also alleged that the "unlawful" lower tax rate for the Sweetbriar development resulted in his paying proportionally higher taxes on his property, in order to sustain Barrington's budget. Morse claimed that the tax on the Sweetbriar development violated the Rhode Island Constitution. In conclusion, he asked the Superior Court to set aside the allegedly disproportionate tax increase that had been imposed on his property.

         In Morse's amended complaint in the declaratory-judgment action, he sought a declaration that Barrington's interpretation of §§ 44-5-12(a) and 44-5-13.11 violated the "fair and equal distribution of burdens" clause under article 1, section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution. He also sought a declaration that the lower tax rate for the Sweetbriar development exceeded Barrington's authority under article 13, section 5 of the Rhode Island Constitution. Finally, Morse requested that the Superior ...

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