Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 6, 2017

RI Supreme Court Finds Zoning Board had Authority to Hear Declaratory Judgment Action

Plaintiff Bellevue–Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA), opposed the Preservation Society of Newport County’s application for the construction of a Welcome Center near the entrance of the Newport mansion. BOPNA initiated a declaratory judgment action in the Superior Court, pursuant to the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA), seeking declarations that the Welcome Center was prohibited under the City of Newport Zoning Ordinance. This appeal arose from the Superior Court’s dismissal of its declaratory judgment action in favor of the society.

BOPNA first argued that the hearing justice was required to hear and decide its declaratory judgment action. Pursuant to the Newport Zoning Code, “it is the intent of this zoning code that all matters arising in connection with the enforcement or interpretation of this zoning code, shall be first presented to the zoning officer; and shall be presented to the zoning board of review only on appeal.” Here, the court found that had the BOPNA proceeded through with the administrative processes, the zoning board would not have had to make a decision regarding the legality of the Breakers’ pre-existing use, interpret the zoning ordinance’s provisions, review the society’s application, and ultimately determine whether to grant a special use permit. The court found that the Newport Zoning Code  granted the zoning board the authority to decide the issues raised in BOPNA’s complaint, and, therefore, the justice was not “obligated to hear and decide” its declaratory judgment action.

BOPNA next argued that exhausting administrative remedies would be futile because it did not have an available administrative remedy to exhaust. Despite plaintiff’s assertion that the zoning board lacked jurisdiction to determine the issues raised in its complaint, the hearing justice found that it had the requisite authority, thus the exception did not apply.  The court held that exhausting administrative remedies was not futile because, at the time of the hearing justice’s decision, the zoning board had the authority to consider the issues raised in BOPNA’s complaint. The zoning board had not yet rendered a decision on the proposed Welcome Center. Accordingly, the court affirmed the holding that the BOPNA failed to exhaust administrative remedies.

Bellevue–Ochre Point Neighborhood Association v. Preservation Society of Newport, 2017 WL 75446 (RI 1/9/2017)

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