Planners concerned about new historic district board
At its May 15 meeting, the Planning Commission revised final comments on a proposed Shoreby Hills neighborhood historic district and governing board for the town council’s review.
The biggest question facing the planners was whether the commission itself should serve as the historic district board or whether a completely separate board should be created.
Commission Chairman Michael Swistak attended a prior town council meeting and reported back his assessment of the town council’s opinion.
“It was apparent at least a majority are in favor of a separate historic district board,” said Swistak.
If that assessment is true the planning commission will have no authority over the potential historic district currently under consideration, although it would retain its current regulatory powers over the area.
“Once this historic district board is created it is their baby,” explained Swistak, referring to the town council.
However, the town council is currently in the height of budget season and the creation of a historic district and a governing board is unlikely to see any consideration soon.
“It won’t get to the town council until the mid-June meeting,” stated town council Vice-President Mary Meagher, who was in attendance.
The creation of a historic district and governing board overlaid on the Shoreby Hills neighborhood has caused some disagreement within the planning commission.
At least one member had serious concerns about creating a historic district, as it would undoubtedly restrict some property rights.
“This is a major setback to those who want to do with their property what they want to do,” said commission member Michael Smith, who also worried that a historic board would be more restrictive than zoning alternatives and would in effect prohibit any alterations to homes within the district at all. Smith said he was concerned about the novelty of creating a historic district in Jamestown.
“This is something that has never happened in Jamestown in our entire history,” said Smith.
“Correct but zoning was new in 1935,” said commission member Rosemary Enright.
Although few attended the meeting at least one resident in attendance shared Smith’s concerns.
“It is a very big thing you’re doing, it is huge,” said William McClain. McClain went on to explain that he has several decades in contracting experience and has seen first hand how historic boards in other communities have slowed construction projects and chilled property rights.
Currently, 16 other Rhode Island towns have 169 historic districts.
There were lengthy discussions about the type of rules the historic district board would enact and the purview of the board’s powers. There were also concerns over the procedure a historic district board would employ.
However, at this time any rules or powers the potential historic board may have or create are purely speculative.
Commission member Mick Cochran summed up the only sure thing concerning the historic district board saying; “The board is going to have a hell of a lot of work in its first year.”
The planning commission’s suggestions will be formalized by town staff and sent to the town council.
In other news, the planning commission unanimously approved the redrawing of three commonly owned lots on Beavertail locally referred to as the Beaverhead Farm.
“We’re only asking for an adjustment,” explained the applicant’s attorney John Murphy.
Currently, the farm has frontage on both Beavertail and Fort Getty roads. One lot is P shaped and sits in the northwest corner while the other two are more or less rectangular sitting north and south of each other.
Several structures, two homes, a barn, and other lesser buildings, all sit on the northern lot, as did both of the farm’s driveways. One of the driveways exits to the north onto Fort Getty Road and the other exits onto Beavertail Road to the east. Both driveways are currently in use.
The property line dividing the northern and southern lots moved north placing one of the homes and the driveway exiting onto Beavertail Road in the southern lot. The southern lot now contains two thirds of the property. The P shaped lot remains mostly untouched.
John Murphy explained the motive for the shift was to give the southern lot a home and independent access to a public right of way.
Several commission members worried that the shift would lay the groundwork for further construction. However, the Beaverhead Farm is regulated as open space with permission for agriculture, forestalling any worries that the adjustment may allow further development.