Town of Cumberland v. Vella-Wilkinson, C.A. PC 10-2096

CourtSuperior Court of Rhode Island
Writing for the CourtSAVAGE, J.
PartiesTOWN OF CUMBERLAND and STEPHEN WOERNER, Finance Director v. CAMILE VELLA-WILKINSON, JOHN B. SUSA and NANCY KOLMAN-VENTRONE, in their Capacities as Commissioners of the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights; THE RHODE ISLAND COMMISSION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS; HENRY BLAINE GAFFNEY; and CHARLEAN S. GAFFNEY
Docket NumberC.A. PC 10-2096
Decision Date01 August 2012

TOWN OF CUMBERLAND and STEPHEN WOERNER, Finance Director
v.

CAMILE VELLA-WILKINSON, JOHN B. SUSA and NANCY KOLMAN-VENTRONE, in their Capacities as Commissioners of the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights; THE RHODE ISLAND COMMISSION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS; HENRY BLAINE GAFFNEY; and CHARLEAN S. GAFFNEY

C.A. No. PC 10-2096

Superior Court of Rhode Island

August 1, 2012


DECISION

SAVAGE, J.

This is an appeal by the Town of Cumberland seeking reversal of a decision of the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights that found that the Town of Cumberland, by and through Stephen Woerner, in his official capacity as Finance Director (collectively, the "Town"), had discriminated against Henry Blaine Gaffney and Charlean S. Gaffney on the basis of race in the review process and ultimate denial of their application for a subdivision. For the reasons set forth in this decision, this Court reverses the decision of the Commission.

I Facts and Travel

A Application Before the Planning Board

In 1975, the Gaffneys purchased property in the Town of Cumberland, Rhode Island. They and their children lived in one house, located at 575 Nate Whipple Highway, Cumberland, Rhode Island, and they owned and rented out another house on 12 Old Reservoir Road in Cumberland, Rhode Island, designated as Assessor's Plat 59, Lot 29 (the "Property"). (Admin. R. Ex. 6, Comm'n Hr'g Aug. 23, 2000 ("Tr."), at 5-7.) The Property consisted of approximately 3.08 acres, and, with only 94.93 feet of public road frontage, the Property was a pre-existing nonconforming lot of record, as it has less than the required 100 feet of frontage. Id.

After a number of years, the Gaffneys wished to subdivide the Property on Old Reservoir Road into three lots: a 1.04 acre lot containing the existing dwelling and two new lots consisting of 1.04 acres and 1.03 acres, respectively. Id.; Admin. R. Ex. 5, Cumberland Planning Bd. Mtg. Mins., Oct. 15, 1990, at 1. The proposed new lots did not have any frontage on a public street and would be accessed by a forty-foot private right-of-way. Id.

On October 15, 1990, the Gaffneys submitted their pre-application sketch plan[1] to the Planning Board.[2] (Admin R. Ex. 5, Cumberland Planning Bd. Mtg. Mins., Oct. 15, 1990, at 1.) Attorney John Andrews ("Attorney Andrews"), who was a land surveyor and present at the hearing on behalf of the Gaffneys, explained that the pre-application sketch plan proposed a subdivision of the Property into three lots with a private forty-foot right-of-way to provide access to the two new parcels that were proposed. Id. Attorney Andrews further proposed that the garage existing on the current lot would be moved because it was presently located where the proposed right-of-way would be developed. Id. He also explained that there was no water to the proposed lots such that a water line of 500 feet would have to be installed for the lots. Id.

After presenting the pre-application sketch plan, Attorney Andrews asked the Planning Board if it would approve the forty-foot private driveway. Id. In response, Planning Board member Ralph Ryan stated that the Board "would have no problem." Id. Planning Board member Joseph Simanski explained, however, that the "[f]orty foot [right-of-way] would be for a private driveway and would not be the Town's responsibility." Id. He also suggested that further research should be conducted regarding water availability and that language conveying the private right-of-way should be added to the deeds of the proposed lots. Id. He then made a motion, which was seconded by Planning Board member Steven Saucier, to grant pre-application approval, "subject to the availability of water to the parcel and also language of right[-]of[-]way … conveyed in deeds." Id. The Planning Board voted unanimously in favor of the motion. Id.

Almost two years later, on August 18, 1992, the Gaffneys submitted a preliminary plat to the Planning Board for conditional approval.[3] (Admin R. Ex. 5, Cumberland Planning Bd. Mtg. Mins., Aug. 18, 1992, at 2.) At the hearing on their request, Eric Gaffney, one of the Gaffneys' two sons, represented his parents before the Planning Board. Id. At this meeting, Eric Gaffney summarized the subdivision proposal and represented to the Planning Board that the total length of the right-of-way would be approximately 470 feet. Id. Planning Board member Timothy Draper expressed his concern that a safety vehicle would not be able to turn around if it had to get down the right-of-way and explained that he would like to see a culde-sac on the right-of-way. Id. Planning Board member Simanski echoed that concern, stating that he "would like a turn around for emergency vehicles at the end of the cul[-]de[-]sac.- Id.

Eric Gaffney then discussed the water main, explaining that the Town did not require a specific size of water main on the right-of-way. Id. Planning Board member William Flynn, however, expressed concern that the Town may want a water main to run down the right-of-way. Id.

Finally, Eric Gaffney explained that the garage would need to be relocated because it was currently located on the proposed right-of-way. Id. at 3. In response, Planning Board member Martin Tagliaferro stated that he would like the next drawing to show where the garage would be relocated. Id. at 3. Planning Board member Simanski added that "the applicant must meet [the] preliminary checklist, " although the minutes do not reflect the preliminary checklist requirements or what requirements the Gaffneys' proposal did not meet. Id.

Planning Board member Draper made a motion, seconded by Planning Board member Donald Reilly, Jr., to approve the preliminary plat with the following conditions: "show the proposed relocation of [the] garage with the added setback lines, identify [the] proposed turn around for emergency vehicles, list zoning on the drawing, confirm lot 27, Assessor's Plat 59, add general note with regard to topography[, ] and provide ISDS [individual sewer disposal system] approval." Id. The Planning Board voted unanimously to grant the motion unanimously. Id. The minutes reflect that Planning Board member Simanski added after the vote that he "would like [the] final checklist met." Id.

On April 19, 1994—almost two years after the Planning Board had approved the preliminary plat—the Gaffneys submitted a final plat to the Planning Board for approval.[4](Admin R. Ex. 5, Cumberland Planning Bd. Mtg. Mins., April 19, 1994, at 4.) Attorney Andrews, counsel to the Gaffneys, and Thomas Letourneau, an abutting property owner, were present at the meeting. Id. The minutes reflect that "the planning board questioned why the Gaffneys had waited so long between stages to return to the planning board for continued approval"; however, the minutes do not reflect that the Gaffneys ever explained why they waited so long to submit their delay in submitting the final plat. Id. at 4. Letourneau then "advised the board of some serious surface water problems in the area [a]ffecting his property, the Gaffney's property[, ] and others in the area." Id.

Planning Board member Tagliaferro made a motion, which was seconded by Planning Board member Donald Costa, to deny approval of the Gaffneys' final plat "because there were a significant number of requirements for [f]inal [p]lat which were not met and because the petitioner had not returned to the board in well over the six (6) months deadline."[5] Id. The Planning Board then voted unanimously to deny the Gaffneys' request for final plat approval— although Planning Board members William Flynn and Richard Susi abstained from voting. Id. The minutes do not reflect which final plat requirements the Gaffneys' request failed to satisfy. Id. After the Planning Board voted, however, Planning Board member Tagliaferro made an additional comment that "the Gaffney's [sic] need more engineering input, more information on water[, ] and a new abutters list." Id.

On July 19, 1994, the Gaffneys resubmitted their preliminary plat to the Planning Board for approval.[6] (Admin R. Ex. 5, Cumberland Planning Bd. Mtg. Mins., July 19, 1994, at 5.) It is not clear in the minutes if this preliminary plat was identical to the preliminary plat that the Gaffneys submitted on August 18, 1992. Id. The minutes simply reflect that there was "[a] brief presentation of the proposed development ... made by the Gaffneys and their attorney [John Andrews]." Id. The minutes then note that Planning Board member Susi made a motion to grant preliminary approval and allow the Gaffneys to submit their final plat, which was seconded by Planning Board member Matthew Brady. Id. at 6. The Planning Board voted unanimously to grant the motion and approve the Gaffneys' preliminary plat. Id.

On September 20, 1994, the Planning Board reviewed the final plat submitted by the Gaffneys.[7] (Admin R. Ex. 5, Cumberland Planning Bd. Mtg. Mins., Sept. 20, 1994, at 7.) Henry Gaffney summarized the request for final plat approval before the Planning Board, and the Planning Board reviewed correspondence from Letourneau, an abutter. Id. The minutes provide that Letourneau sent a letter that "raised a number of objections and concerns regarding the proposed subdivision[, ] primarily the issue of excess surface water problem from the site, " although the minutes do not detail Letourneau's specific objections and concerns. Id. Planning Board member Susi moved to continue the hearing on the final plat and to "require that the petitioner bring [the] plans up to Subdivision standards, " which was seconded by Planning Board member Antonio Albuquerque. Id. The Planning Board voted unanimously to grant the motion, although the minutes do not detail why the Planning Board believed that the Gaffneys' final plat was not in compliance with subdivision standards. Id.

On October 18, 1994, the Planning Board held the hearing on the Gaffneys' request for final plat approval.[8] (Admin R. Ex...

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