Posted by: Patricia Salkin | May 26, 2021

RI Supreme Court Affirms that Charter School May Be Deemed a Public School Under Municipal Zoning Ordinance and Hence a Municipal Use

The plaintiff, the City of Woonsocket, appealed from a partial final judgment of the Superior Court in favor of the defendants, RISE Prep Mayoral Academy (RISE) and Brad Ward and Carl J. Johnson, in their capacities as city officials, that denied and dismissed the city’s request for declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and judicial aid in enforcement of the city zoning ordinance.  On appeal, the city contended that the trial justice erred because she misconstrued the zoning ordinance, ignored provisions of the city’s 2012 Comprehensive Plan, and applied the wrong standard of review, giving deference to the zoning official’s ruling.

First, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial justice appropriately found that the city’s zoning ordinance was ambiguous because it failed to specifically address the proper classification for RISE’s operation, and two of the classifications provided in Section 4 of the zoning ordinance were amenable to RISE’s operation.  Accordingly, the Court determined that it was the trial justice’s responsibility, and the Court’s function, to adopt the interpretation of the zoning ordinance that would best carry out its evident purpose.

In doing so, the Supreme Court concluded that, as a public charter school, RISE’s operation is considered a municipal use under the city’s zoning ordinance because, pursuant to the Charter Public School Act of Rhode Island, G.L. 1956 chapter 77 of title 16, “a charter school shall be deemed to be a public school[.]”  The Court noted that the city, in its 2012 Comprehensive Plan, characterized all public schools as “Municipal Facilities” and that the city’s zoning official credibly testified that, in issuing the zoning certificate to RISE, he concluded that “a public school is a municipal use,” and “a use that’s being utilized by a municipality would * * * overturn * * * any other use to be considered.” 

The Court also determined that the trial justice did not accord blind deference to the zoning official’s determination that RISE’s operation is a municipal use allowed by right in a C-2 zone in the city, but merely assigned weight to his conclusions based on his credible testimony and conducted a thorough analysis in which she reviewed the relevant statute, opinions of the Court, the city’s zoning ordinance, and its Comprehensive Plan.  Accordingly, the Court found no error with the trial justice’s decision and concluded that RISE is a public school and its operation is a municipal use, which is permitted in a C-2 zone under the applicable zoning ordinance.  Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court.

City of Woonsocket v. RISE Prep Mayoral Academy et al, 2021 WL 2131755 (5/26/2021)

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