2013-12-05 / Front Page

Major repairs to homes in Lower Shoreby Hill will have to wait

Council places moratorium while planners discuss merits of special zoning
By Margo Sull ivan

Lower Shoreby homeowners must wait to do remodeling projects and exterior repairs due to a moratorium the Town Council adopted Monday night.

But other locations, such as Upper Shoreby Hill and the Windmill Hill District, will not be included in the moratorium, the councilors decided at their Dec. 2 meeting.

The Planning Commission asked for the action to prevent new property owners from demolishing or altering any of Jamestown’s architecturally significant properties. The commission is currently considering zoning changes for a proposed historic district. However, the commissioners asked for a moratorium that would cover all “structures, districts and sites designated on the National Register of Historic Places.”

During an hour-long debate, the councilors expressed misgivings about the scope of the moratorium, even though, as Councilor Mary Meagher acknowledged, she also has concerns about losing architectural treasures. Recently, two of the most significant Lower Shoreby homes have sold, and three other sales are pending.

In the past, some historic Jamestown properties have been torn down when new owners acquired the home, Meagher said. Nonetheless, she was concerned about the impact on residents because so much property would come under the moratorium. For example, the moratorium was to include the archeological district.

None of the houses are architecturally significant in that district, she said, and it was established to protect the Native American burial ground. Meagher divulged her home is located in that district, which runs down Southwest Avenue.

It encompasses about “half the town,” she said. “You might find people surprised there’s a moratorium to reshingle their house.”

Although she personally does not need to make any home repairs, Meagher said she could understand other people might need to do work to sell their homes.

Jamestown resident Holly Gifford said four prospective buyers are considering her family home in Upper Shoreby, but all the prospective buyers have indicated they would make “significant alterations” if they purchased the home. Meanwhile, the house has been on the market for two years, while prices have “dropped precipitously,” she said. Three buyers said recently they will walk away if the moratorium is passed.

“You’re putting some of us in a very awkward and challenging financial position,” she said.

According to Gifford, six months was too long to wait to do repairs. “Good grief, that is a long and challenging time,” she said.

Gifford called the impact of the moratorium “potentially shattering,” and added she never received any notification that town officials were considering such a measure.

“I can’t afford legal counsel,” she said. “I’m hoping somehow this evening someone can come up with a better alternative.”

Councilor Blake Dickinson said he could envision many unhappy homeowners filing lawsuits against the town. The moratorium conflicts with the rights of private property owners, he said.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero conceded lawsuits are a possibility since people would have two avenues of appeal. They could go to the Zoning Board of Review or directly to court.

However, he said, the moratorium is “legally defensible.”

Councilor Eugene Mihaly asked if the restrictions would apply to even minor renovations, such as a new door.

Yes, Ruggiero said, any exterior modification would come under the moratorium.

However, the moratorium cannot last longer than six months, the councilors said. Moreover, if the Planning Commission can craft new regulations that will protect architecturally and historically significant properties, it could end before the six months are up.

Although some regulations now exist to protect the homes, the rules may be unenforceable due to some “ambiguity,” as Ruggiero put it. An existing ordinance gives the Planning Commission jurisdiction over buildings and districts that have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Meanwhile, interior remodeling and repairs are not prohibited, Ruggiero said. Other exceptions allow for exterior repairs in the event of a disaster, such as a tree falling on the house, he added.

Council President Kristine Trocki asked Ruggiero to summarize the impact of the moratorium and go over “what this covers and what it doesn’t cover.” Trocki said she was assuming the goal was to “preserve the status quo” until the Planning Commission can craft zoning amendments to protect historic and architectural treasures.

“It’s basically just a time out,” Ruggiero said. He summed up the main point as “no demolition.” Moreover, “Any type of development, redevelopment or new development is prohibited.”

The moratorium did result from the debate over declaring Lower Shoreby as Jamestown’s first historic district. The councilors have continued the public hearing on whether to establish the district until February.

Meanwhile, the Planning Commission has been grappling with the issue, Ruggiero said, and it’s now involved in neighborhood discussions with Lower Shoreby residents.

“That process could take three to four months to complete,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said, there’s been turnover on properties and the buyers have expressed some interest in “substantial alterations.”

According to Ruggiero, the Planning Commission decided the question was, “Do you let the horse out of the barn before you close the door? Planning said close the door now.”

Meagher suggested limiting the moratorium to Lower Shoreby. Her reasoning was those residents are aware of the debate over preservation, but people in other areas might be surprised by the development.

Dickinson said he was philosophically opposed to the moratorium. Imagine, he said, if Jamestowners in the past had declared the entire island a historic district and not allowed any development. But he would go along with the moratorium if only Lower Shoreby were impacted because, as Meagher said, people are aware there has been a discussion about preservation and they wouldn’t be surprised.

Trocki said a moratorium is “the best we can do,” according to legal counsel. The rewards outweighed the risks, she added, because it would be irreversible if the landscape of Jamestown is dramatically changed before the town had a chance to put the comprehensive zoning regulations on the books.

The councilors amended the resolution to limit the scope to Lower Shoreby and then voted unanimously to adopt it. The moratorium will not go passed May 2, 2014.

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