In her campaign for lieutenant governor, Catherine Taylor has talked broadly of boosting the Rhode Island economy by, among other things, streamlining business regulations.
During a recent appearance on Channel 6’s "On the Record," Taylor, a Republican who resigned from her position as head of the state Division of Elderly Affairs to run for office, argued that red tape at the local level is impeding business. She referred to the experience of one Rhode Island company to illustrate her point.
"I go back to the Newport Tent example," she said on the show that aired Sept. 7. "Every time they work in a city or town they have a whole different set of permits that they have to get in order to pitch a tent."
This particular claim about Newport Tent sounded familiar to us. It turns out that former Journal staff writer Cynthia Needham (now an editor at the Boston Globe) wrote about the company’s struggles with permitting in a May 4, 2010 story with the headline "New bills could reduce red tape."
In the story, Newport Tent owner Bill Corcoran complained about the time and effort it takes to comply with all the differing rules in Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns. During the busy season in spring and summer, one employee devotes her time to driving around the state getting all the necessary permits, he said at the time.
But that was four years ago. Weren’t the nine proposed bills written about in that article supposed to create more uniform permitting processes and put time limits on how long communities have to complete requests?
When we contacted Taylor’s campaign, her campaign manager, Zach Sherman, first pointed us to the Rhode Island statute that requires Newport Tent -- or any other tent company - to obtain permits from local authorities.
The link he sent was out-of-date. The General Assembly recently changed the law, increasing the minimum size of tents subject to local approvals from 120 square feet to 350 square feet.
Sherman also gave us Corcoran’s number, so we called him. Our first question was the obvious one. Haven’t things gotten better since that 2010 package of legislation won passage?
No, he said flatly.
The problem isn’t so much that each of the state’s cities and towns requires a permit before Corcoran’s company can put up a tent, it’s that the requirements for those permits vary so widely, he said.
Some communities require a trip to the building inspector and then the fire department. Some reverse the process. Others call for two visits to the building department. There is little consistency, he said.
For example, he said, Providence requires a signed form from a property owner authorizing a tent to be put up. No other community requires such an authorization.
We looked at regulations in other cities and towns and found more differences. In Cranston, tent stakes must be installed at least 10 feet apart and aisles must be at least 44 inches wide, according to rules posted by that city’s Fire Department. The Watch Hill Fire Department in Westerly isn’t so specific, requiring only that there be no trip hazards in the tent.
Corcoran also said Newport is the only community in the state that allows his company to do business by phone or mail, largely because of the company’s 40-years-plus year history of work there. Permit applications in all other cities and towns must be done in person.
Corcoran says there’s more flexibility in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In Connecticut, where his company erected a tent last weekend, everything was done by phone and email, he said.
"That was easy," he said. "They had the forms right online."
In Rhode Island, he said, he still has an employee who works nearly full-time on permitting in the state.
Catherine Taylor said that tent companies such as Newport Tent must meet different permit requirements in each of Rhode Island’s cities and towns.
Although the state legislature has worked to ease the regulations governing Newport Tent and other tent companies, one thing hasn’t changed. Those companies must still seek permits from cities and towns through processes that vary widely and have differing requirements.
We rule Taylor’s claim True.
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