2007-07-03 / News

Should Jamestown designate one or more historic districts?

By Michaela Kennedy

Planning Commission and Jamestown Historical Society members joined other residents at the library last week to learn about the legal process of creating a historic district on the island. Pamela Kennedy, Deputy Director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, explained the legal functions and standards of a historic district at the June 21 meeting, sponsored by the first and second Shoreby Hill Subdivision Associations.

Kennedy said she has "seen it all" in approaches to historic district zoning during her 25 years of work with the state commission. A town adopts a historic district ordinance, and designates an area for historic preservation. An advisory commission is then formed to review development projects. "Each community must decide what is good for them," Kennedy noted.

State-enabling legislation is broad, and allows for a variety of approaches to historic preservation, according to Kennedy. Places like Hopkinton or Cumberland may have a small district, reviewing only one application a year or less. Larger areas, such as Newport, rely on a historic preservation commission as an element of economic development. "Other communities show a range of opportunities (for preservation), peopled by architects, builders, sometimes archaeologists or architectural historians," she noted.

Roughly one-third of the communities in the state have historic district zoning. Typically, urban settings consider the zoning, but recently more rural areas have adopted similar zoning laws, Kennedy continued. She warned "it is a lot of work" to set up a historic district, but added that a few neighborhoods in Jamestown could benefit. Two benefits mentioned were availability of the state's Homeowner's Tax Credit, and protection from changes that could negatively impact an area.

"Historic district zoning is not the only way to preserve a historic district, but it is a strong way," Kennedy advised.

When an audience member asked if a property owner were obstinate about tearing down his house, Kennedy responded, "It is often a process of negotiation."

Kennedy offered Warren as a case study, explaining the town's adoption of voluntary zoning. People with properties in the historic district are obliged to go before the board, but can choose to take or leave advice given. "A property tax break is awarded if the owner takes the advice," she said.

Abigail Campbell-King noted a link between historic zoning and property values, using Burlington, Vt. as an example. "Plaques were a big deal. Realtors went wild," she said.

The deputy director claimed not to be a proponent of historic district zoning, but merely a consultant giving advice on the process. "It is a tool to approach a difficult question," she said.

Jim Buttrick, a member of the Shoreby Hill Second Subdivision Association, encouraged island residents to continue discussion of creating a historic district, particularly in the Shoreby Hill area. The flexibility of the state legislation opens the door to many possibilities in Jamestown, he noted.

The deputy director encouraged anyone seeking advice to contact the state office. For more information about the R.I. Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, visit online at www.rihphc. state.ri.us, or call Pamela Kennedy at 222-2078.

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