By Patrick J. McBurney

September 18, 2023

As part of the 2023 legislative session, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed numerous laws, all with varying degrees of impact on zoning and land use issues. One such bill changes the standard by which municipal zoning boards judge applications for a dimensional variance.

Previously, part of the standard included a determination of whether or not the application resulted primarily from the desire of the applicant to realize greater financial gain and whether the relief to be granted was the least relief necessary. Both of these criteria often proved difficult to judge, as it could be argued for almost every application that the desire of the applicant was greater financial gain (i.e. property value) and that the relief sought was not the least relief necessary (i.e. why not a few feet less?). Both of these standards were deleted as required findings, such that a dimensional variance now only needs to show that: (1) the hardship is due to the unique characteristics of the property; (2) the hardship is not the result of any prior action of the applicant; (3) the granting of the variance will not alter the general character of the surrounding area or impair the intent of the zoning ordinance; and (4) if the variance is not granted, it will amount to more than a mere inconvenience, which means that the relief sought is minimal to a reasonable enjoyment of the permitted use to which the property is to be devoted. In amending and clarifying the standard for a dimensional variance, the General Assembly brought clarity to both applicants and the members of Zoning Boards that must deliberate on the applications.

Other legislative changes include the following matters: • Uniform notice and advertising requirements;

  • Creation of a dedicated Zoning/Land Use calendar in the Superior Court;
  • Repeal of the RI State Housing Appeals Board;
  • Adaptive reuse of commercial structures into residential developments;
  • Amendments to Comprehensive Planning, including adoption and consistency of applications, and;
  • Amendments to subdivision and land development permitting process.

If you have questions about land use or zoning laws, please contact PLDO Partner Patrick J. McBurney at 401-824-5100 or email

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