The Gerald P. Zarrella Trust v. Town of Exeter, 011618 RISC, 2016-301

Docket Nº:2016-301
Opinion Judge:Francis X. Flaherty, Associate Justice.
Party Name:The Gerald P. Zarrella Trust et al. v. Town of Exeter et al.
Attorney:For Plaintiffs: William J. Conley, Esq., Gina Renzulli Lemay, Esq. For Defendants: James P. Marusak, Esq., Per C. Vaage, Esq., Stephen Joshua Sypole, Esq.
Judge Panel:Present: Suttell, C.J., Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ. Justice Goldberg
Case Date:January 16, 2018
Court:Supreme Court of Rhode Island
 
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The Gerald P. Zarrella Trust et al.

v.

Town of Exeter et al.

No. 2016-301

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

January 16, 2018

         Washington County Superior Court Appeal. (WC 15-218) Associate Justice Luis M. Matos

          For Plaintiffs: William J. Conley, Esq., Gina Renzulli Lemay, Esq.

          For Defendants: James P. Marusak, Esq., Per C. Vaage, Esq., Stephen Joshua Sypole, Esq.

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

          OPINION

          Francis X. Flaherty, Associate Justice.

         This appeal involves a man, Gerald Zarrella, his land, Gerald's Farm, and a local government, the Town of Exeter, Rhode Island. The plaintiffs, the Gerald P. Zarrella Trust, Gerald P. Zarrella, in his capacity as trustee, and Gerald's Farm, LLC (collectively, Zarrella), seek review of a Superior Court judgment denying their request for declaratory relief. This matter came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not summarily be decided. After considering the parties' written and oral arguments, and after reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. At issue is whether subsection 4(a) of Rhode Island's Right to Farm Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 23 of title 2, permits Zarrella to host commercial events, such as weddings for a fee, on his farmland in Exeter. For the reasons discussed below, we hold that it does not; therefore, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         This is not the first time that Zarrella and the Town of Exeter have been entangled in litigation over Zarrella's right to host commercial events on his farmland. In 2011, after the town sued Zarrella to prevent him from doing exactly that, the town and Zarrella entered into an amended consent judgment that permanently enjoined Zarrella from "using and/or renting the property located at 270 Narrow Lane, Exeter, Rhode Island, known as Gerald's Farm * * * for weddings for a fee or other commercial events."1 There was one caveat: the injunction would run with Zarrella's land "until such time as and to the extent that the terms of this permanent injunction are superseded by statute * * *." According to Zarrella, that time came in 2014.

         In 2014, the General Assembly amended the second sentence of § 2-23-4(a) to read as follows: "The mixed-use of farms and farmlands for other forms of enterprise including, but not limited to, the display of antique vehicles and equipment, retail sales, tours, classes, petting, feeding and viewing of animals, hay rides, crop mazes, festivals and other special events are hereby recognized as a valuable and viable means of contributing to the preservation of agriculture."[2]

         Concluding that this amendment superseded the 2011 injunction, Zarrella attempted to obtain a zoning certificate from the town that would allow him to host a commercial fundraising event on his farmland. But, as it did in 2011, the town rebuffed Zarrella's attempt to do so, informing him that he was still bound by the terms of the 2011 injunction. This prompted Zarrella to file suit against the town and the members of the Town Council, in their official capacities, in 2015.

         In a verified complaint, Zarrella sought a number of declarations pursuant to the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 30 of title 9. Zarrella asserted that hosting commercial events-including hosting weddings for a fee-is the sort of "other special event[]" that the General Assembly "recognized * * * as a valuable and viable means of contributing to the preservation of agriculture" when it amended § 2-23-4(a) in 2014. The thrust of Zarrella's complaint was that the 2014 amendment to § 2-23-4(a) rendered the 2011 permanent injunction a nullity, green-lighting his ability to host weddings for a fee on his farmland.

         After he filed his lawsuit, Zarrella obtained a temporary ...

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