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Rhode Island Land Use Planning Overview (1-RI-a)

Rhode Island delegates most land use planning to local governments. A bulk transmission developer should ensure that the proposed project complies with adopted land use plans and zoning regulations. Before beginning construction, a developer may need to obtain a modification, variance, or special-use permit from the appropriate local authority. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-41. Under tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 22-7(c), the local zoning board of review, and planning boards and commissions, have the authority to “review and approve, approve with conditions, or deny requests for variances and special-use permits as part of land-development…applications.” tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 22-7(c).


Land Use Planning Overview Process

1-RI-a.1– Review Land Use Plans and Zoning Regulations

Prior to initiating construction, a developer should review the land use plans and zoning regulations of the municipality where the proposed project is located. Depending on the size and scope of the proposed project a modification, variance, or special-use permit may be required.

1-RI-a.2 to 1-RI-a.4 – Contact Appropriate Local Zoning Authority

Prior to initiating construction, a developer should contact the appropriate local zoning authority. Some municipalities require a pre-application conference for specific types of development proposals. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-48.

Generally, pre-application conferences:

  • Acquaint the applicant (developer) with the local comprehensive plan, zoning ordinances, and any specific plans that apply to the parcel the applicant (developer) seeks to develop;
  • Suggest improvements to the proposed project;
  • Advise the applicant (developer) to consult appropriate authorities on the character and placement of public utility services; and
  • Help the applicant (developer) understand necessary steps for approval.

tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-48.

1-RI-a.5 to 1-RI-a.6 – Does the Project Meet Applicable Modification Requirements?

In Rhode Island, some towns and cities allow for modifications or adjustments from the literal dimensional requirements of zoning ordinances. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-46(a). Under tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-46(a), a modification of a local zoning ordinance must not exceed 25%, of any of the specified dimensional requirements. If a project is located within a jurisdiction that provides for modifications and requires alteration of dimensional requirements within the proscribed 25% range, then the applicant (developer) may apply for a modification. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-46(a).

1-RI-a.7 to 1-RI-a.8 – Review Application Materials for Completeness

The appropriate local authority reviews the modification application for administrative and technical completeness.

1-RI-a.9 to 1-RI-a.11 – Assess Application for Approval

If the project only requires a modification, then the appropriate local authority may grant the modification upon review. The appropriate local authority must make a determination on the requested modification within ten (10) days of receiving the request. In determining whether to grant a requested modification the appropriate local authority considers whether:

  • The modification requested is necessary for the full enjoyment of the permitted use;
  • If the modification is granted, a neighboring property will be substantially injured;
  • The modification requested is in accordance with the purposes and intent of the local comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance; and
  • The modification requested does not require a variance of a flood hazard requirement. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-46(a)(1)-(6).

1-RI-a.12 to 1-RI-a.13 – Does the Project Require a Variance or Special-Use Permit?

If the project does not comply with local zoning ordinances and does not meet modification requirements, the developer may file an application for a variance or special use permit with the applicable local authority to obtain relief from strict compliance with zoning ordinances and land use regulations. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-41; tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-42.

1-RI-a.14 to 1-RI-a.15 – Does the Developer Elect for Unified Development Review?

Under tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-46.4, a developer may submit a request for a variance or special-use permit as part of a land-development application submitted to the local planning board or commission under local unified development review provisions. If a project is located within a jurisdiction that provides for unified development review, an applicant (developer) may submit a request for variance and/or special use permits to the local planning board or commission for approval. For more information, see:

Unified Development Review:
1-RI-b

1-RI-a.16 – Application for Variance or Special-Use Permit

A developer may submit applications for variances and/or special-use permits to the applicable municipal zoning board of review. A municipal zoning board of review has authority to receive, assess, and approve or deny applications for variances and/or special-use pursuant totit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-57.

1-RI-a.17 to 1-RI-a.18 – Review Application Materials for Completeness

The zoning board of review reviews variance and/or special-use permits for administrative and technical completeness.

Variance

Upon receipt of an application for variance, the zoning review board may request that the appropriate planning board or commission, within 30 days, submit a report of findings on the project. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-41(b).


1-RI-a.19 to 1-RI-a.20 – Provide Public Notice of Public Hearing

The zoning board of review must provide notice of a public hearing on the application for variance or special-use permit at least 14 days prior to the date of the hearing. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-41(b); tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-42(b)(4).

Public notice must be provided in a newspaper of general circulation in the appropriate city or town. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-41(b). Individual notice to the applicant (developer) and all other required parties must be provided by first-class mail. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-41(b).


1-RI-a.21 to 1-RI-a.22 – Assess Application for Approval

In determining whether to grant a variance and special-use permit, if the special-use could not exist without the requests dimensional variance, the zoning board of review, must consider the special-use permit and the dimensional variance together to determine whether granting the special-use permit is appropriate. The appropriate reviewing authority must consider the requirements for establishing the need for a variance in determining whether to grant a special-use permit. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-42(c).

Following a public hearing, the zoning board of review must issue a decision on the application within fifteen (15) days. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-61(a). The zoning board of review must include in its decision on the application, all findings of fact and conditions. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-61(a). The zoning board of review must mail the decision on the application, including any special conditions on the application, to the applicant (developer) and to the appropriate local authority. The zoning board of review must also record the decision on a variance, modification, or special use permit in the land evidence record of the appropriate city or town. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-61(b).

1-RI-a.23 – Approved Variance or Special-Use Permit

In granting a variance or special-use permit, the zoning board of review or applicable planning board or commission may apply conditions to the permit necessary to promote the intent and purposes of the local zoning ordinance or comprehensive land use plan. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-43.

Conditions on variance or special-use permits may include, but are not limited to:

  • Minimizing the adverse impact of the development upon other land;
  • Controlling the sequence of development, including commencement and completion dates;
  • Controlling the duration development;
  • Designating the location and nature of development; and
  • Establishing detailed records of submission.

tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-43(1)-(6).

1-RI-a.24 – Appeal Decision to the Public Utilities Commission (If Applicable)

Under tit. 39 R.I. Gen. Laws § 1-30 , any aggrieved party may appeal any municipal zoning determination regarding the placement, erection, and maintenance of any utility building, equipment, or structure to the Commission within ten (10) days of the municipal zoning authority’s notice of decision. Upon review, the Commission may affirm, revoke, or modify such municipal zoning authority determinations.


1-RI-a.25 to 1-RI-a.26 – Appeal Decision to Superior Court (If Applicable)

Under tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-63(b), any party aggrieved by a zoning board of review decision make file an appeal with the superior court for the county in which the municipality is located. An aggrieved party may appeal a zoning board of review decision within 20 days following the recording of that decision with the city or town clerk. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-69(a).

Upon appealing a decision of a zoning board of review, the aggrieved party must mail individual notice of the appeal to impacted real property owners and conservation easement rights-holders within ten (10) days of filing the appeal. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-69.1(b).

Proper notice of the appeal must include the following information:

  • The caption and civil action number of the case;
  • Date the case was filed in superior court;
  • County in which the appeal was filed;
  • Contact information of the attorney filing the appeal on behalf of the aggrieved party, or the contact information of the aggrieved party if unrepresented by counsel;
  • Language clearly stating that the appeal has been filed in superior court;
  • Language clearly stating that the aggrieved party will serve the named defendants;
  • Language clearly stating that the persons receiving notice may participate in the appeal; and the
  • Date of the notice.

tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-69.1(c).

Within 20 days of sending notice, the aggrieved party must file an affidavit with the court certifying:

  • A complete list of all the names and addresses of the intended recipients of the notice of the hearing;
  • The date the notice was sent;
  • That the notice was sent properly;
  • A list of notices that were returned to the return address; and that all other notices have not been returned; and
  • A copy of the notice form.

tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-69.1(d).


The aggrieved party must serve the zoning board of review with a copy of the complaint. Within 30 days of receiving of a copy of the complaint, the zoning board of review must file either the original, or certified copy, of the original record of the case appealed from. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-69(a). If the appeal is filed by an entity that was not a party to the original case, the zoning board of review and the original applicant or appellant are made parties to the appeal proceedings. tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-69(a).

Upon considering the decision on appeal, the court may affirm, remand, reverse, or modify the decision upon determining that the decision was made:

In violation of constitutional, statutory, or ordinance provisions;

  • In excess of the zoning board of review’s authority;
  • Upon unlawful procedure;
  • In an error of law;
  • In clear error based on the probative and substantial evidence of the record; or
  • Arbitrarily, capriciously, or in an abuse of discretion.

tit. 45 R.I. Gen Laws § 24-69(d).


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