Lower Shoreby could be first historic district zone in town
A group of residents has been working since 2006 to have the neighborhood declared a historic district zone. The group started after a few of the historic houses had been demolished, according to Jamestown’s Betty Hubbard, amid concerns the neighborhood was changing and losing its special character.
At Monday night’s Town Council meeting, the group’s persistence paid off when the council voted unanimously to support the residents’ efforts. The councilors authorized the Planning Commission to draft an historic district ordinance for Lower Shoreby Hill and develop an application process, which will include design guidelines, regulations and neighborhood participation.
This will be the second time the Planning Department has tried to create an historic district zone at Shoreby Hill, Town Planner Lisa Bryer indicated.
The Planning Department in the past recommended Shoreby Hill as an historic district zone, Bryer said, but the Town Council in 2009 opted not to move forward.
“The council was leery about going into the formal process of creating an historic district and an historic district commission,” she indicated. “It just didn’t go anywhere.”
Despite the setback, the residents hired a consultant, Arnold Robinson, a professor at Roger Williams University, and pushed ahead with a bid to have Shoreby Hill listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The group also canvassed the neighborhood and determined the majority supported the historic district designation zone.
Only about 7 percent of the homeowners opposed the historic district, Hubbard said.
Shoreby Hill, made up of both the upper and lower neighborhoods, made the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
Known as Jamestown’s last important residential subdivision of the 19th century, Shoreby Hill’s two neighborhoods – Upper Shoreby and Lower Shoreby – comprises about 90 houses representing a gallery of shingle-style architecture on 50 plus acres.
“Clearly, it’s a special place,” Bryer said, adding that 70 percent of the houses in Shoreby Hill were built between 1889 and 1936. Most of them have undergone changes, Bryer added, but “retained the characteristics that make them special and historic.”
But there’s no guarantee Shoreby Hill will be preserved for future generations, several residents said. Right now, nothing on the books will prevent a new owner from buying a historic house in Shoreby Hill and tearing it down to be replaced by “a big white box,” said resident Joe Reale.
Reale, who is the president of the Lower Shoreby Hill Association, said he wants Lower Shoreby to become a historic district zone to protect the structure and character of the neighborhood, and help preserve Jamestown’s architecture and heritage.
Bryer said designating a historic district would require creating a new commission, which would establish design guidelines that will be specific to Shoreby Hill.
In this case, the district will encompass Lower Shoreby Hill only, although both neighborhoods are part of the National Register’s historic district.
The residents of Upper Shoreby Hill have not decided if they want to be part of the Jamestown historic district, Hubbard said.
“We tried and didn’t get anywhere,” she said. Hubbard feels they are taking a wait-and-see approach and may join the rest of the group later.
About half the communities in Rhode Island already have historic districts, Hubbard said.
The Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the Town Council about whether or not to designate Shoreby Hill as a historic district zone, Bryer said. But ultimately, the council will have the final say.
The Planning Commission will also designate so-called “buildings of value,” Bryer said. According to her presentation, these structures are either specific buildings that the state historical commission has identified in its 1995 publication “Historical and Architectural Resources of Jamestown,” or they are buildings that are similar in style, architecture and historical period.
The advantage to the designation is that historic buildings will be preserved forever and not altered in ways that destroy their character, said Bryer. The downside is that the homeowner faces a longer approval process when making changes to the home.
Rhode Island also has a model historic district ordinance, which Jamestown can adapt as a starting point, Bryer said.
Councilor Mary Meagher said there may have been concerns that other neighborhoods would copy Shoreby Hill and that historic district zones would “creep all over Jamestown.” She then added that the Shoreby Hill neighborhood is unique. Meagher said the neighborhood stands out because the houses were all built within a limited time and represent examples of the shingle style.
“Lower Shoreby is such a coherent architectural gem,” said Meagher, an architect by trade.