How Jamestown works: One man wears more than one hat
The Jamestown Building and Zoning Department has a lot to say about what this town will look like for the foreseeable future. The decisions made there often shape important decisions about the way islanders live.
The department is headed up by Fred Brown, who serves in a dual role. For the Building Department, Brown is the building official. His department also includes two parttime employees: licensed electrical contractor Angus MacColl, and licensed plumbing and mechanical inspector Vincent Walsh.
Brown’s job as the building offi cial is to coordinate the department, including the scheduling of inspections and the issuing of permits. He is also called upon to do field work that involves going out and inspecting work that is already in place.
The other half of the job for Brown is his role as the zoning enforcement officer, which requires him to interpret and enforce the zoning code. As if that isn’t enough, Brown acts as the minimum housing inspector for the few calls that his department gets regarding rental housing. The other employee in the zoning department is the clerk, Pat Westall, who works approximately 20 hours a week.
“The zoning code is a document that flows from the state enabling act,” Brown said. “Each community is free to adopt their own set of rules as to how they want to zone the different districts, where they want commercial activity, where they want exclusively residential activity.”
Brown continued: “I handle the complaints about people who think that there may be zoning violations in their neighborhood, and prepare applicants to petition the local Zoning Board of Review for mediations in the forms of variances from the rules.”
According to Brown, the zoning law consists of two separate documents. One of them is a map of the island that shows the various zoning districts. The other document is a text that includes all the definitions and the rules of enforcement.
The Zoning Board of Enforcement is a group of volunteers whose responsibility it is to weigh the evidence and decide on the merits of the applications that come before them. If an application can meet the burden of proof imposed by the laws of the state of Rhode Island, relief is granted in the form of a variance.
Brown helps to prepare applicants for their appearance before the board, which usually meets on a monthly basis. He is also responsible for complying with state notifi cation laws, which require the running of advertisements in the Jamestown Press for three weeks prior to the hearing date. These advertisements describe the application in question. He must also notify the owners of any abutting properties.
At the hearings, Brown is in attendance along with a member of the town solicitor’s office for the purpose of helping the board to get through the evidence, and to explain what the law is. The board takes testimony from the applicants, and from any concerned neighbors after which they deliberate and then deliver a written decision.
While there are currently no contentious issues before the board, Brown realizes that the peace won’t last. “We’ll go for a year or so and then we’ll hit on a case that really sends us for a loop,” he said. “But currently these are pretty much routine petitions.”
According to Brown, the biggest problems that come up in his job have to do with the failure of neighbors to communicate with each other. “I often tell complainants that the worst thing that can happen is that you have a big party going on and you run out of ice,” he said. “You have to go next door and knock on the door and say ‘Hey, can you loan me a tray of ice?’”
“I’m just shocked at the number of people who don’t communicate with their neighbors,” Brown added. “They may have a grievance about the way the guy’s parking his car in his driveway, or may have a stack of stinky lobster pots.”
Brown warns that once a complaint gets escalated to his office, the law takes over and the parties are going to have to live with the decision. “It’s always sad when they come to me, because when they come to me they have to eat whatever gets stirred up in that pot,” he said. “The ante gets upped. Once I get in there, the gloves are off. I have to enforce the law.”
In Brown’s opinion, better communication between neighbors would result in fewer complaints and a happier community. “It’s always sad when people don’t communicate in a small neighborhood,” he said. “Most of zoning is local. It’s what a particular neighborhood can bear.”