The Hummel Report: Blocking the View

Condo Harbor Houses copyNearly everywhere you look, there is water. With the Newport Bridge 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. Sisto has been both a defendant and a plaintiff.

Diane Vanden Dorpel and her husband Ron bought one of the 46 units in the nearby America building in 1992, primarily for a spectacular view of the harbor from their porch, later buying a second unit in the same building as an investment in 2005, about a year before she first met Sisto.

diane“He was very nice,” Vanden Dorpel said of that first meeting with Sisto. “He had these plans to really expand the unit that’s directly in front of us. It would have blocked our water view, and we were trying to see if we could compromise.”

In 2006, Sisto’s attempts to expand one of his units just down the street from the Vanden Dorpels and another he owns set in motion litigation that is still going today. “Our concern was, if he can do it down there, what’s going to stop him from doing it in front of us? Nothing,’’ Vanden Dorpel said.

Meanwhile, Sisto has gone to the Rhode Island General Assembly to try and change the state’s three-decade-old Condominium Act. At issue: a 3,800-square-foot townhouse that was half the size it is now when Sisto bought it 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 tenet of state law.

sistoSisto maintains he did have 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 his massive unit, as he has had mixed success up until now in court.

Sisto hired high-profile lobbyist Christopher Boyle — a Newport lawyer and former House majority whip – to represent him before the General Assembly. Sisto declined our request for an interview, instead having Boyle speak on his behalf.

“From the very beginning there was a provision allowing the townhouses to be altered, to be expanded,” Boyle said. “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.”

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.

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.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey told The Hummel Report after a hearing on the bill in May that he did not see the legislation making it out of committee this session.

Then Boyle proposed changes that would narrow the scope of the bill and it eventually made it through the Judiciary Committee and was later passed by the full Senate. But with an abrupt end to this year’s General Assembly session, it never passed the House and the bill died.

Now the question is: Will Sisto try to have the bill reintroduced again next year?

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to www.hummelreport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.org.

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