If you are in Rhode Island and have cases or public meetings/hearings pending, including planning and zoning board hearings, we are sure you are wondering how the COVID-19 virus is impacting the various state and municipality governments. This blog post is meant to convey, in one spot, all that we know about what the various closures and cancellations may mean for you.
States of Emergency
At the state level, Governor Gina Raimondo and her team declared a State of Emergency on March 9th, and have encouraged municipalities to do the same. This allows access to additional funds to fight spread of the virus. To date, many municipalities have also declared Local States of Emergency. The various state courts originally had all court calendars are cancelled this week and no jury trials, but now have closed for everything except emergency matters until April 17th, where emergencies include domestic violence petitions, temporary restraining orders, bail, and arraignments for charges of serious crimes. Cases will be rescheduled or heard remotely if possible, including for planning and zoning board appeals.
Governor Raimondo’s March 16th Executive Order affects both the RI Open Meetings Act and Access to Public Records Act which in turn affects you, through public access. The Open Meetings Act (OMA) requires all public bodies (government agencies, planning and zoning boards, town councils, etc.) to allow public access to meetings. The Access to Public Records Act, or APRA, requires just that: citizens can request copies of any public records (meeting minutes, agendas, records, memorandum, reports, etc.) and those requests must be handled within ten business days of receiving the request.
Open Meetings Act
With respect to the OMA, Governor Raimondo is allowing public bodies conducting public meetings to do so by remote means, provided that the meeting in question is “for an essential purpose” and makes provisions to ensure public access by means other than in-person. These other means include conference call “dial-in” numbers and live video conferencing through Skype or Zoom. If you have planning and zoning board issues, these will almost certainly be cancelled and rescheduled unless there is some statutory or regulatory deadline.
Access to Public Records Act
With respect to the APRA, the Executive Order states that for all pending and new requests, which may include planning and zoning board document requests, the statutory response timeframe has been suspended. Agencies and public bodies have 20 days in addition to the timeframe and extension provided for in the statute, so long as they let the requestor know in writing that the delay is due to COVID-19 issues.
Restaurants and Zoning
In the Governor’s March 16th Executive Order, bars and restaurants are restricted to take-out and delivery only starting March 17th. The current zoning ordinances in Newport, for example, prohibit restaurants from operating primarily through take-out and delivery unless granted a special use permit by the Zoning Board; this requirement has been waived during the period of the Governor’s Executive Order in order to allow the planning and zoning boards to remain closed and reschedule as opposed to dealing with a flurry of these requests for special use permits.
All of this information is subject to change at any moment. Our staff are working remotely and are available by phone or email throughout these closures. If you are a client seeking an update on your case OR you are wondering what to do about your potential case while many agencies and public bodies are closed, please reach out to us at 401.477.0023.