2009-02-05 / Island History

Jamestown Historical Society News

As we mentioned in last month's column, the Town Council has asked the Jamestown Historical Society for comments and recommendations on a recent request by the First Division of Shoreby Hill — often called Lower Shoreby — to enact a town ordinance establishing a local historic district. The JHS Board has spent much of the last month reviewing the request and the information we have collected over the years on local historic district zoning.

In response, the board of the JHS has written a letter to the Town Council supporting the establishment of a local historic district ordinance, with the First Division of Shoreby Hill designated as the first local historic district — at least one district being necessary for the ordinance to be enacted. Additional historic districts can be added to the ordinance at a later date, if the property owners within an area of the town so wish. The JHS letter encouraged the drafters of any ordinance establishing a historic district to look at the model ordinance and design guidelines available from the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission.

Historic district zoning is not a new idea in Jamestown and is, essentially, an extension of the zoning authority of the town to incorporate historic significance as a criterion when a building permit is requested either to change the external façade of an existing building or to construct a new building within the designated district. Consideration of historic significance can prevent the demolition of, or irrevocable changes to, historic buildings and landscapes whether the historic resource to be preserved is an individual building, a community of structures, or open space. Article 11 "Development Plan Review" of the current Jamestown zoning law — which governs the review of development plans within the commercial zones — already incorporates "preservation of important historical and cultural resources" (Sec. 82-1100 C) as a general goal to be considered during development in those areas.

The existence of well-crafted standards and procedures for implementing a local historic district ordinance—not too onerous or complicated but able to fulfill the goals intended — could benefi t the whole island. The people on Jamestown want to retain what they have. The Jamestown Vision: Charrette Report (2008) comments: "Residents love Jamestown the way it is and want it to change only in so much as is required, ironically, to preserve the island's existing character. Certainly the elements which comprise the character of a place are many and varied, but almost axiomatically, a large part of this beloved character of Jamestown is formed by the architecture which populates it." A local historic district is designed to ensure that the character of the designated area is retained as best as possible. The historic district commission, which would be created by the ordinance, establishes the standards to be applied and has the responsibility for enforcing them. Normally, the commission contains members from the community as a whole as well as representatives of the residents of the historic district.

Shoreby Hill

While the board doesn't think that the JHS should try to define which portions of Jamestown should be designated as historic districts, it agrees that the First Division of Shoreby Hill has the necessary historic credentials to be considered a local historic district. The historic value of Shoreby Hill is spelled out in Historic and Architectural Resources of Jamestown, Rhode Island on pages 95 to 97. The boundaries of Shoreby Hill coincide with the boundaries of the Greene Farm, established early in the 18th century by David Greene and farmed well into the 19th century. In 1896, the Jamestown Land Company, headed by two St. Louis residents, Ephron Catlin and James Taussig, purchased the 58-acre farm to create a housing development called Shoreby Hill. They hired Ernest W. Bowditch, who had just completed the design of Tuxedo Park, New York, to lay out the new development. Many of the houses on Lower Shoreby — including the three that look down across the large circular green — were built in the first phase of the development, between 1898 and 1900.

Property owners within any proposed district are the most powerful stakeholders in the commission of an historic district, and without their approval and support it is diffi- cult for the implementation of a local historic district ordinance to be successful. This threshold of property owner volition can be a diffi- cult hurdle for the establishment of an historic district. The request of the Lower Shoreby Hill residents to establish an historic district represents an opportunity for the town to achieve some of its preservation goals stated in the Comprehensive Community Plan and the Jamestown Vision report.

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