2008-01-04 / News

Clancys' glass blowing studio causes a big stir

by Tom Shevlin

When David and Jennifer Clancy opened the doors to their glass blowing studio in November 2004, there was little fanfare and no indication that the diminutive post and beam barn would be cause for clamor. Now in 2008, their studio is at the center of a debate that has stoked the passion of island residents and has found the artist couple in court.

The Clancys, who own and operate Clancy Design on North Main Road, began their glass blowing business as a part-time endeavor, however have quickly found a full-time demand for their work.

In 1999, David Clancy, then a Portsmouth resident who had worked as a glassblower for other artists, stumbled across the dilapidated Miller's Cottage at 382 North Main Rd. After finding a kindred spirit in his wife Jennifer in 2003, the newlyweds decided to construct their own studio on a patch of land adjacent to their home. After spending five years rehabbing the landmark 1781 cottage in the shadow of the island's historic windmill, the Clancys' studio would stand as a physical representation of Jamestown's burgeoning arts community.

In 2004 zoning officials granted the Clancys a permit to construct a modest 600 square foot barnstyle studio to be used solely for producing their wares with retail sales prohibited. To date, visitors to the workplace pull into the driveway and are welcomed in to watch the Clancys practice their craft. Their work has been featured in the Providence Journal, Yankee Magazine, and HGTV. However, should visitors want to purchase a piece from the studio, a phone call or visit to the Clancy's Web site is required.

As visitors continued to look on, and demand for the work increased, the Clancys once again approached the zoning board this time for a special-use permit that would allow the couple to conduct retail sales from their studio. The request, which required a 4-1 vote to pass was denied after the application received a 3-2 vote in favor of granting the permit. Since then, the case has sparked heated debate and has drawn opposition from some of the island's most influential organizations.

The Jamestown Historical Society (JHS), which was founded in 1912 to restore and protect the idyllic Jamestown Windmill that abuts the Clancy's property, was recently granted standing before the courts and has voiced strong opposition to the plan. According to the society, allowing retail sales in the island's historic district could open the door to unchecked commercial development.

"The Jamestown Historical Society strongly believes that those potential harms and degradations cited by the Zoning Board in its unanimous decision to deny the Clancy application for retail sales of glassware constitute in fact a real threat to both its property and to the surrounding district," attorney John Murphy wrote on behalf of the JHS.

Last month, a standing-room only crowd turned out to hear town councilors weigh in on the matter. While the council could not have any formal impact on the process, its position would carry weight in the eyes of the court, according to Town Solicitor Lauriston A. Parks, who has handled the Clancy case since its inception.

Parks noted that the case can only be settled in superior court. According to Parks, presiding Judge Edwin J. Gale had asked that the zoning board clarify its position. However, because the board was unable to do that, the application was sent back to court.

According to Parks, the case law is clear. Once a zoning board decision has been appealed to superior court, the board has no say in what happens to the appeal. The only town entity that would have any standing to resolve the dispute would be the Town Council, Parks added. However, because the historical society has been granted standing in the case, the council is unable to resolve the matter on its own.

That didn't prevent town councilors from taking up the issue in public session in December. Nor did it stop councilors, after listening to several supporters as well as opponents,from passing a resolution in support of granting a special use permit for restricted retail sales by a unanimous vote of 5-0.

Some islanders argued that the Clancy's brand of artisan craft is the definition of historic villages. Joann Ziegler of 9 Union St., an art and architecture teacher said at the time that the Clancys presence in the town's historic district was in keeping with island history.

"Working artisans constitute the very definition of village," she said at the Dec. 9 meeting of the Town Council.

Others, such as Richard Allphin, a zoning board member when the matter first came to the attention of the town, believes that the Clancys never would have received permission to construct their studio in the first place had they indicated they were planning on conducting a retail operation out of the building. According to Allphin, he directly asked the Clancys if they were seeking permission to engage in retail sales. They replied they had no such intentions.

Allphin's sentiments have been echoed by the Jamestown Historical Society's Murphy, who in a letter to the Town Council argues that the Clancys' studio, is already three times larger than the town's zoning ordinance for a home business allows.

In addition to the historical society's objections, another prominent organization has also lined up against the Clancys' request. The Conanicut Island Land Trust (CLT), which has worked to preserve Jamestown's open space with 41 properties totaling approximately 450 acres of island land under its management, also sees a threat to the island's central corri- dor. Quentin Anthony, attorney for the Conanicut Island Land Trust gave an impassioned presentation to town councilors in December regarding the need for the town to respect the authority and the ruling of the zoning board.

Although councilors were sensitive to the concerns of the CLT and JHS, they were also understanding of the Clancys' position.

Councilor William Kelly said that while he did not want to be part of a council that "second guess the decisions of the zoning board or any commission," he was willing to weigh in on the matter. Councilors Michael White and Barbara Szepatowski agreed. Councilor Robert Sutton said that he saw an inconsistency in the North Main Road driveways. "In all but one of them you can drive in and buy something. The only place you can't drive in and buy something is the Clancy's" he said at the time.

Under the resolution, the town endorsed a special use permit provided that no other artwork may be displayed or sold; that the special use permit only apply to the Clancys and not the plot; the plot may not be subdivided; signage limited to only existing displays, and operating hours limited to June 1 - Dec. 31, Thursday through Sunday 11 a.m. until 4 p.m., with daily operation allowed between Dec. 15 - 24. How much weight, if any the council's resolution will carry remains to be seen according to Parks.

For now, while debate continues to swirl around the Clancy's appeal, island residents can only sit and wait while the process plays out.

"As I understand it," Parks said, "the case has been reassigned to Judge (Vincent) Ragosta" and there's no way to tell when a fi- nal decision would be reached. "I can't really predict," he said. "I don't think it will be too long. I think it will be resolved some time this year."

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