It is one of the most prime pieces of real estate in Rhode Island. But the condominiums on Goat Island South in Newport have also been embroiled in multiple property disputes and litigation for more than a decade. Now, one of the property owners is asking the General Assembly to change the law and allow him to preserve an expansion of his condominium that doubled the unit’s size - while the Supreme Court is deciding an appeal from some of his neighbors who say the expansion violated state law. Jim Hummel hears from both sides on the proposed legislation.
Nearly everywhere you look, there is water.
With the Newport Bridget to the west, Fort Adams to the south and Newport Harbor to the East, the condominiums on Goat Island South have been a select slice of Rhode Island real estate since the late 1980s, after condos went up on land formerly owned by The U.S. Navy.
But Goat Island has also been embroiled in multiple property disputes resulting in litigation – lots of it, with three lawsuits so far going to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Right in the middle of the current-day legal wrangling: Bennie Sisto, an accountant and property investor from Lincoln, who owns four of the 19 standalone townhouse units on the east end of the island overlooking Newport Harbor.
The entire development consists of those townhouses, called the Harbor Houses, along with 46 units in the America building and 89 in another building, called Capella. Together they make up a total of 154 units on Goat Island South.
Sisto has been both a defendant and a plaintiff.
Diane Vanden Dorpel and her husband Ron bought a unit in The America building in 1992, primarily for this view of the harbor from their porch, later buying a second unit as an investment in 2005, about a year before she first met Sisto.
Vanden Dorpel: ``He was very nice. He had these plans to really expand the unit that’s directly in front of us. And it would have blocked our water view and we were trying to see if we could compromise.’’
Sisto’s attempts to expand this unit in 2006 and another he owns set in motion litigation that is still going today.
Vandel Dorpel: ``Our concern was, if he can do it down there, what’s going to stop him from doing it in front of us? Nothing.’’
Meanwhile Sisto has gone to the Rhode Island General Assembly to try and change the state’s three-decade-old Condominium Act. At issue: this 3,800-square-foot townhouse that was half the size it is now when Sisto bought in 2011. Within months of the purchase he began adding 1,200 square feet of living space and a third floor, even though some of his neighbors went to court to try and stop him – saying he didn’t have the permission of the other unit owners to expand onto what was shared condominium space – a basic tenant of state law.
Shamoon: ``I didn’t think he had the right to do that. I told him, I said, why don you go…he could do it if he got the permission of all 153 other unit owners.’’
Sam Shamoon is a former planner for the city of Providence, who bought a unit in Capella 10 years ago.
Shamoon: ``Anybody who buys into a condominium, I did it with my eyes open. I read all of the documents. It’s not like buying a house in Cranston, or Exeter or Even Providence - where the only restriction on you is the zoning, or other building code issues. When you buy into a condominium it’s a host of restrictions.’’
But Sisto maintains he had permission to expand when the declarations governing the property were amended in 2007. And now he is trying to change state law – a change that would allow him to keep the expansion he made to this unit, as he has had mixed success up until now in court.
Boyle: ``Anyone who’s live in a condo can see that sometimes things get contentious. Goat Island for some reason, the associations like to find themselves in court.’’
Sisto has hired high-profile lobbyist Christopher Boyle - a Newport lawyer and former House majority whip – to represent him before the General Assembly. Companion bills have been filed in the House and the Senate, but neither of the bills’ sponsors has any ties to Newport. The House bill is sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Cale Keable of Burrillville, and the Senate bill by Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey of Warwick. Both told The Hummel Report they introduced the bills at Boyle’s request.
Sisto declined our request for an interview, instead having Boyle speak on his behalf.
Boyle: ``From the very beginning there was a provision allowing the townhouses to be altered, to be expanded. Anyone who bought their unit, from the moment that condominium started, was on notice that the townhouses could be expanded.
But critics say those amendments did not conform to state law. Sisto has already lost one case in the state Supreme Court trying to expand a unit he owns. In that case a justice termed his reasoning ``legal fiction.’’
Shamoon: `` He was building this knowingly. He knew that this was against the law, against the condo laws and he persisted in any event. So he doesn’t like the law, he goes to the legislature to get it changed. I think that’s the bottom line.’’
The legislation passes, it would allow him to keep the expansion on this unit intact. A Superior Court judge warned him that he expanded at his own risk when his neighbors took him to court shortly after construction began in 2011; but the judge also did not order him to stop construction or to tear down the expansion. That decision is now on appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which should hear arguments sometime this fall.
Vanden Dorpel – who has testified repeatedly against the bills - labels them special legislation to benefit one person and a threat statewide to the Rhode Island Condominium Act, a consumer protection law modeled after national legislation that has been adopted in the majority of other states.
Vanden Dorpel: ``The very idea that someone would expand and take over land that’s owned by his neighbors, without their consent, is just mind boggling.’’
Hummel: ``Any doubt in your mind that this legislation was written and filed specifically for Mr. Sisto?’’
Vanden Dorpel: ``No.’’
Boyle: ``This, to me, is legislation that I’ve seen a thousand times trying to address a problem.’’
Boyle rejects Vanden Dorpel’s arguements, saying laws are amended regularly each session.
Boyle: ``And we think what we are requesting is reasonable. What we think is unreasonable is to go before the Supreme Court and ask for an order to tear down someone’s home, when it doesn’t block a view, it doesn’t interfere with any of their lifestyle or their quality of life. They just want to tear it down. And by extension, once you tear that one down you have the right to tear down the others.‘’
Boyle says nine other Harbor House units have expanded at various times, and if the Supreme Court rules against Sisto on the expansion of his unit, the other owners, by extension, might have to tear down their expansions.
Vanden Dorpel says there has never been any talk of tearing down any of the other units – just the doubling in size of Sisto’s unit or plans that would block other owners’ water views. And, she adds, if this legislation goes through, it could affect other condominium associations in the state.
Vanden Dorpel: ``If the Rhode Island General Assembly allows one person to make an end run around a Supreme Court decision to take land that belongs to 153 of his neighbors, without their consent, I think it’s a very sad day for Rhode Island.’’
Boyle says the legislation is a direct response to one of the Supreme Court decisions that said it had no choice but to rule against Sisto because of the way state law is written.
Boyle: ``So as it has happened in time immemorial there was a decision made to seek legislative redress. To say, perhaps General Assembly, you might want to look at the Supreme Court ‘s decision and say that’s not really how the law should operate. We’re seeking legislative redress to say let’s go back and legislatively put in the ‘07 agreement and let’s live by those rules. And I think that is a reasonable result. When those people bought those units in the declaration it clearly stated that those townhouses could be expanded. It didn’t come out of thin air.
Hummel: ``Isn’t’ that declaration, though, the source of litigation?’’
Hummel: ``In effect, that you can say whatever you want in a declaration, but if it doesn’t conform with state law then what’s going to win? State law right?’’
Boyle: ``Well that’s where we’re seeking our remedy.’’
Hummel: ``What about the larger issue that this could have an impact elsewhere in the state?’’
Boyle: ``We heard that argument and we are now looking at language to make sure that we’re addressing only this particular issue.’’
And since our interview last week, Boyle has proposed several revisions to the bill that would make the legislation apply more specifically to the set of circumstances on Goat Island South.
He presented those revisions at a hearing Tuesday night before the Senate Judiciary Committee. After listening to more than an hour of testimony the committee voted to hold the bill for further study.
And McCaffrey tells The Hummel Report based on the testimony he heard, the bill is unlikely to pass this session.
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.