Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 26, 2013

RI Supreme Court Finds Plaintiffs Failed to Prove Entitlement to Nonconforming Use Status

Plaintiffs owned a home that was constructed in 1911 in the city of Providence, Rhode Island (“City”).  In 1923, the City passed its first zoning ordinance.  The zone in which Plaintiffs lived was governed by this ordinance, which allowed a single dwelling to act as no more than a single- or two-family home.  The terms of the 1923 ordinance allowed for some land uses to be grandfathered in, as long as they began before the ordinance was passed.

When Plaintiffs sought a permit to make changes to their property in 2008, the City conducted inspections of the property that led to the discovery that it was being used as an illegal three-family home.  Plaintiffs appealed the City’s determination that this was illegal, but the zoning board affirmed the decision. Plaintiffs later filed a complaint to the trial court where they appealed the zoning board’s decision.  Plaintiffs sought declaratory judgment against the City to have their three-family home grandfathered in and treated as a legal nonconforming use.  Plaintiffs provided tax assessment records that showed they used the property as a three-family home since the 1940s.

The trial court found that Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to prove that the property was used as a three-family home before the 1923 ordinance was passed.  Their use of the property was not grandfathered in or declared a legal nonconforming use.  The trial court also determined that Plaintiffs failed to establish that equitable estoppel or the doctrine of laches precluded the City from enforcing the ordinance.  Plaintiffs then appealed the trial court decision to the Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

On appeal, the court first addressed the issue of whether the property was a nonconforming use.  The court explained that a nonconforming use is a use of property that does not conform to the applicable zoning laws but which use is protected because it existed lawfully before the enactment of the zoning laws and continues to exist.  Here, Plaintiffs needed to prove that their use of the property as a three-family home existed prior to the enactment of the 1923 ordinance.  Yet the evidence proffered by Plaintiffs only demonstrated that the property was used as a three-family home since the 1940s.  Since this evidence did not prove that the three-family home existed prior to 1923, the court determined that the trial court was correct in refusing to declare this a legal nonconforming use.

Next, the court evaluated Plaintiffs’ claim that equitable estoppel should preclude the City from enforcing the ordinance.  In order to invoke equitable estoppel, the plaintiff must prove that (1) a representation was made by the defendant with the intention of inducing an action or failure to act and (2) that the plaintiff detrimentally relied on this representation by acting or failing to act.  The appellate court found that nothing in the record supported the contention that the City made any representation to induce Plaintiffs to act.  Furthermore, there was no evidence of harm done to Plaintiffs.  Although the City benefitted from taxes collected from Plaintiffs’ three-family home, Plaintiffs also benefitted from the rental income from the additional family.  The court held that this had a negating effect and thus did not satisfy the element of injury.  As a result, the appellate court determined that trial court was correct in declining to apply the doctrine of equitable estoppel against the City.

Finally, the court discussed Plaintiffs’ claim that the doctrine of laches should preclude the City from enforcing the ordinance.  The doctrine of laches precludes claims brought by parties who negligently sit on their rights to the opposing party’s detriment. Courts look to see if the negligence led to a “delay in the prosecution of the case” and whether this delay caused prejudice to the opposing party.  The appellate court will not disturb the trial court’s decision regarding the doctrine of laches unless it is “clearly wrong.”  The trial court in the present case determined that the City did not act negligently because it did enforce the ordinance once it realized Plaintiffs were in violation.  The appellate court did not find the trial court to be “clearly wrong,” and thus did not disturb the trial court’s decision regarding the doctrine of laches.

Cigarrilha v. City of Providence, 64 A. 3d 1208 (RI 5/15/2013)

The opinion can be accessed at:


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