Council approves moped ordinance changes

Thu, 03/11/2021 - 5:15pm

The Town Council held two meetings on rental mopeds on March 4. At 7:00 p.m., the council unanimously approved license renewals for the five current moped rental businesses in less than 10 minutes.

At the noon public hearing on proposed amendments to the moped ordinance, however, the attorney for those businesses asserted the changes “are legally impermissible” and threatened legal action if the council adopted them.

The council did approve the amendments immediately after the public hearing, to take effect “upon passage,” meaning they apply to the 2021 licenses renewed that evening.

The vote to adopt the amendments passed 3-2, with Second Warden Sven Risom and Councilors Keith Stover and Mark Emmanuelle in favor, and First Warden André Boudreau and Councilor Martha Ball against.

The amendments specify the location and type of training that moped renters must undergo before going on the road, and shorten the hours that mopeds may be operated.

Currently, most moped training takes place on a public street, Weldon’s Way, and is a frequent impediment to the flow of traffic there. The change in rules requires the moped owners to submit a site plan with their license applications that specifies a “vehicle proficiency area” where renters would “practice using the vehicles” before going on the road. 

Under the revised ordinance, renters must also now watch a training video and take a quiz, before going on to taking a test drive on private property.

One amendment explicitly prohibits companies from renting to anyone “who is visibly intoxicated.” A new sentence states that any violation of town ordinances or state law may result in “suspension, revocation, or non-renewal” of the moped business’ license.

The new language would also restrict both rental and operation of mopeds to between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Formerly, businesses were allowed to rent mopeds between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., and renters could use them from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Comment from the general public at the hearing was minimal. Sarah Bacon, founder of the #RespectBI group urging reform of the town’s moped rules, spoke in favor of the changes.

Attorney Beth Noonan, representing the five moped businesses, told the council that the proposed amendments exceed the town’s authority under both state law and an existing settlement agreement between the operators and the town.

Noonan said that her law firm “had submitted on behalf of all of the [moped] license owners a letter dated March 1, 2021 to the town clerk, [where we] go through the proposed amendments and why we believe they are legally impermissible regarding the powers that are set forth by state law. We point out in that letter that some of those issues have been litigated before and lost, and in addition to that we have the settlement agreement that is in place until 2022.”

“To the extent that we believe any of these proposed ordinances violate those restrictions, we do and will intend to challenge them going forward whether for this year or next year,” Noonan said.

Noonan specifically objected to the proposal to shorten the time mopeds may be rented and used.

“Factually, it has not been established that these changes in operating hours will have any impact whatsoever, or that they are warranted. Here you are singling out one business to restrict because of the perceived traffic problems at 9 to 10 in the morning. We will be retaining a traffic expert to review these issues and I think Block Island has a lot of traffic issues historically, and not everything can be laid at the feet of the moped owners,” she said.

“Similarly again,” Noonan continued, “the restriction in the afternoon of rental time and return time, again aside from saying that perhaps later in the day people are more prone to perhaps being under the influence, that’s really not a necessary reason to not allow someone out at those times.”

Noonan also warned against going against existing state law. “We have a state scheme for regulating how vehicles are driven and that is what applies. If you have every municipality adding additional testing, licensing, and training it can lead to great confusion statewide, and that is the reason why certain regulations are preempted by the state. I would caution the municipality about going forward and targeting these regulations at just one particular type of business, in this case the mopeds,” she said.

The moped business owners’ attorney was the last person to comment. Boudreau then made a motion to close the public hearing. The vote adopting the proposed amendments followed immediately.

The 7 p.m. meeting had one agenda item, a vote on the 2021 moped business licenses. The council unanimously approved Boudreau’s motion to renew the rental moped licenses for the year 2021 for the five operations: Aldo’s Mopeds Inc; The Moped Man, Inc; Island Mopeds; Miles-Un-Limited, Inc; and Ocean State Bikes, Inc.