Planners discuss Lower Shoreby Hill
The Planning Commission on March 6 considered a request from the Town Council concerning what actions to take in response to Shoreby Hill becoming Jamestown’s first historic district zone.
Last month representatives of the Lower Shoreby Hill Association asked the Town Council to consider declaring the neighborhood a historic district zone. The councilors voted unanimously to support the efforts, and they authorized the Planning Commission to draft an ordinance and develop an application process.
The central question facing the commissioners was what protections should be enacted to preserve the neighborhood. Town Planner Lisa Bryer said that a historic zone would require a body for enforcement, so if the district were created, a governing board would also be required.
In 2011, Shoreby Hill was named to the National Register of Historic Places. While being irrevocable, being placed on the list fails to convey immediate protection to the properties. Although some tax benefits become available, without further action from the town, the designation doesn’t protect or maintain the historical nature of the neighborhood. On the other hand, a local designation could limit new construction or prohibit teardowns.
There are approximately 50 homes in the Lower Shoreby Hill district. Currently, the town has designation already on the books for “buildings of value.” The problem is that no homes have been designated on the official zoning map, including homes in Shoreby Hill.
The advantage of the ordinance is preservation, said the commission, while the disadvantage is the additional permitting that would be required for homeowners. A historic zone designation could even control design guidelines on homes in the district.
Rhode Island already has statutes that enable the creation of historic zones. “About half the towns in Rhode Island have historic districts,” said Bryer. “There is no question [Shoreby Hill’s] historic.”
She said the state’s legislation is “tried and true,” adding that Rhode Island automatically places properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places on the state register.
Residents from the neighborhood originally approached the town back in 2009 about becoming a historic district. At that time a grant from the Rhode Island Historical Society allowed the town to hire a consultant, who cataloged each home in the neighborhood, including the year it was built and the architect who designed it.
Shoreby Hill residents spoke at the Planning Commission’s meeting, saying six homes have been torn down in the neighborhood, including two that were historic. Without protection as a historic zone, there is no promising that character of the neighborhood won’t be altered again.
“What a lot of residents are concerned about is that after a home is torn down, the thing in its place is massive,” said Shoreby Hill resident Betty Hubbard.
According to Hubbard, a poll taken by the Lower Shoreby Hill Association showed roughly threefourths of neighborhood residents were in favor of the designation.
“It’s a shame to lose the character of the neighborhood,” said Shoreby Hill resident Paul Andrews. “That is why I’m imploring you to do this.”
Currently, only Lower Shoreby Hill residents are asking to be recognized as a historic zone. Upper Shoreby Hill will remain as it is currently zoned.
Commissioner Mike Smith took some umbrage with the idea of a historic district. Because the neighborhood would be controlled by a governing board, Smith worried about a power conflict.
“It would be controlled by the personalities of the people on the board,” said Smith. He also worried about too much oversight of the residents.
Commissioner Duncan Pendlebury also voiced concern about christening every home in Shoreby Hill a “building of value.” He suggested that a demolition protocol might be more appropriate and less intrusive.
The commission then went over the proposed ordinance that the neighborhood association crafted. Of particular concern was the make-up and authority of the board that would control the district. Issues included its size and scope.
“We don’t want to have belts and suspenders,” said Pendlebury. “We want this to be easy for people.”
The commission continued the issue until its next meeting to allow Town Solicitor Peter Ruggieri to prepare information about any legal requirements concerning the proposed zone. Specifically, the commissioners want to know if they can serve as a historic district commission or whether an entire new board must be created and staffed.