Residents discuss historic district
Approximately 15 people – mostly residents of Lower Shoreby Hill – attended a meeting at the Jamestown library on Sept. 20 to clarify information about the possible creation of a historic zoning district in the Lower Shoreby Hill neighborhood, a move that could happen in about a year, according to Betty Hubbard.
Many in attendance shared enthusiastic sentiments about creating a historic district in Lower Shoreby Hill, which supporters say would help preserve the character of the neighborhood.
“It is not snobbism, it is not elitism, it is we love the island of Jamestown,” said Mary Pat Ryan. “I wish there was a way we could get that spirit out there, that is why we are doing this.”
Other residents admitted that the community has little power to enforce rules to which the trustees have agreed. Some residents have been intruding upon bylaws with actions like building fences in front yards, when only rear-yard fences are allowed. Other violations include building houses in sizes that are out of character with the area, residents said.
“They are unable to enforce community bylaws due to cost of litigation,” said Shelley Widoff, a Lower Shoreby Hill resident. “They are deferring that authority to the town.”
Some residents cited concerns about the possibility that houses could be demolished. After the meeting, Jim Buttrick said two houses have been destroyed, and residents are concerned about preserving the historic homes. The Lower Shoreby Hill neighborhood was created in 1898, he said.
“It is distinctly possible that somebody could put up the Malibu beach house,” said Joe Reali, a trustee of Lower Shoreby Hill. He characterized a “Malibu beach house” as a white, cubical structure. “I am not saying it is bad taste…but I would not want to see that next to me,” he said.
Among supporters of the creation of a historic district, which could place restrictions on house exteriors depending on how an ordinance is crafted, preservation was the number-one factor in their decision to lend their support.
But residents who oppose the creation of a district say that even modest renovations, like sliders on the backside of a house, could be delayed or cancelled by the restrictions of a historic district. Hubbard, a supporter of the district, admitted that Newport has had complaints about delays in housing projects. But, one of the ideas on the table for the ordinance is a provision to let the backside of houses remain less restricted.
“It is the public view of the building that is the focus,” Buttrick said.
Hubbard said two chief complaints that Newport is dealing with are that the commission that oversees the district should include homeowners, and that some of the members have specialized backgrounds in architecture or
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . history. Andrew Roos, a resident who was involved with historic districts in New York City, said creating a historic district could cause headaches for homeowners. When renovating an exterior, Roos said, sometimes committees continue rejecting proposals until applicants create one that the board likes.
“It is typically, ‘Keep coming back with a plan,’” he said. “It is sort of like running around in the dark with a flashlight. Their interest lies in what is historically compatible with the intent of the original architect.”
The residents asked how the town would go about looking for a desirable plan, and Roos said the process can get complicated.
“You cannot legislate good tastes,” he said.
Buttrick and the trustees said the town has guidelines for the selection of house features, such as windows and porch features. “It includes the good, the bad and what is beyond belief,” he said to a laughing audience.
Roos said renovations can get expensive. While renovating a commercial property in New York in a landmark district, Roos said his company spent a six-figure sum.
“And all we did was renovate the store front,” he said.
Roos and Widoff said a survey of Lower Shoreby Hill residents inquiring about support for creating a historic district was misleading, but Reali said residents were allowed to voice their concerns at an annual meeting and subsequent official vote.
Reali said a majority of the residents were in favor of creating a district, which is why the trustees chose to go forward with the idea. Several residents asked if the state required a 75 percent majority support, but trustees said that after contacting the state Historic Commission officials, they found out that support is recommended, but not required.
For the time being, Upper Shoreby Hill, which is legally a separate entity, Buttrick said, is not being included in the proposal for a historic district because of less support. Lower Shoreby Hill is older and has more historic homes than Upper Shoreby Hill, he added.