Written for Developers, Builders, Engineers/Architects interested in Zoning Enabling

On January 1st 2024, the state of Rhode Island passed what we in the industry refer to as “enabling legislation” with the explicit goal of creating more housing stock to alleviate the housing shortage. This “Zoning Enabling” legislation does a few things that we encounter in day to day development, summarized below. There are numerous blog articles from law firms, and some presentations made during the legislative session – all good references – but these can be hard to follow, hence our summation.

For official purposes, the core bill is the only primary source. Caveat Emptor.

I do sincerely hope that this creative Zoning Enabling legislation allows for more housing units to be constructed and that these are significant enough to reduce housing prices and alleviate demand. My expectation is that it’s going to take at least 3-5 years for that to happen, given the limited amount of land area in RI. The adaptive reuse provision should allow for many “old” uses (malls, etc.) to be converted into housing. It would definitely be nice to see more duplex zoning allowance. And keep an eye out for Newport’s zoning ordinance, which is currently investigating a few options to solve their own housing crisis. Watch this space.

2023 Legislation | Partridge Snow & Hahn client alert | Dimensional Modification

Up to 5%
This can be interpreted as a “gimmie”, the local zoning officer is permitted to allow modifications of the core zoning setbacks (not variances), by 5% without requiring notification of abutters. So if your side setback is 10’-0” the zoning officer can permit a reduction of 6” to 9’-6”.

15% to 25% (Varies by municipality, check local zoning).
The process, in a nutshell, is as follows: The applicant requests a dimensional modification for up to 15% to 25% of the core zoning setback, from the zoning officer. Abutters are then notified of the request. If no abutters object, the zoning officer can administratively approve the request. If any objections are filed, then you would proceed to the Zoning Board of Review for a zoning variance application.

Low to Moderate Income Housing Developments:


This permits density over the core zoning allowance, provided projects have at least 25% low to moderate income housing (defined as housing that’s below 80% Average Median Income (AMI) for rentals or less than 120% AMI for sales, with at least a 30 Year Restriction).

Stormwater, parking, utilities, etc., still must “work” for the project

For properties with BOTH sewer and Water:

·       With 25% LMI Units: 5 Units Per Acre

·       With 50% LMI Units: 9 Units Per Acre

·       With 100% LMI Units: 12 Units Per Acre

For properties not connected to BOTH sewer but provide service (via wells / OWTS):

·       With 25% LMI Units: 5 Units Per Acre

·       With 50% LMI Units: 9 Units Per Acre

·       With 100% LMI Units: 12 Units Per Acre

Also, this requires only ONE parking space for dwelling units with less than 2 bedrooms.

Adaptive Reuse

“Adaptive reuse” means the conversion of an existing structure from the use for which it was constructed to a new use by maintaining elements of the structure and adapting such elements to a new use.

For adaptive reuse projects meeting certain criteria, municipalities allow for high density developments of at least 15 units per acre. This allows for the conversion of any commercial building, office, school, religious facility, medical building or mall into residential units of mixed use development which include the development of at least 50% of the gross floor area into residential units.

This is a permitted use, under zoning, allowed by specific and objective provisions, except where prohibited by an Environmental Land Use Restriction (ELUR) e.g. contaminated site.

These projects only require one parking space per unit (off street) and the development must include 20% low and moderate income housing. Also, the development must have access to public sewer and water, or have adequate on-site facilities.

Both height and pre-existing zoning setback nonconformities shall be considered legal non-conforming, but no additional encroachment shall be permitted if it does not meet the zoning.

Check out:

similar article by Partridge Snow & Hahn | original bill text

Proportional Setbacks:

Properties with land area that’s less than what’s required by zoning have setbacks and coverage reduced in kind. E.g. for a 10,000 sq.ft. lot in an R20 Zone (Requiring 20,000 sqft.), setbacks are reduced by half, and lot coverage increased proportionally as a result.

If the zone has setbacks of:

Front: 30’

Rear: 20’

Side: 10’

These would become:

Front: 15’

Rear: 10’

Side: 5’

For coverage, the calculation is a bit more esoteric. If lot cover was 20%, we would take the Permitted Lot Cover + (percent deficient x lot cover percent) = “new” allowable lot cover


20%  + ( 0.5 x 20%) = 30%

This allows much more flexibility in building planning than what was previously allowed and impacts our day to day survey and engineering business. Now, we have to inspect each property to see if it’s non-conforming, and if so, check our math with the local zoning officer.

If you own a property that meets these criteria, you may have just received a huge “bonus” in terms of what your site can support, by right (without asking for zoning relief).

In conclusion, Rhode Island’s 2024 Zoning Enabling legislation represents a significant step forward in addressing the housing shortage by providing developers, builders, engineers, and architects with more flexible and adaptive zoning options. This creative approach should help spur the construction of much needed housing units, particularly through the adaptive reuse of existing structures and the promotion of low to moderate-income housing. While the effects of these changes will take time to manifest, the potential for meaningful impact on housing affordability and availability is promising. For anyone in the development field, this legislation offers both challenges and opportunities, making it crucial to stay informed and engaged with the evolving regulatory landscape.

-Neal Hingorany MS PLS
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