2014-04-24 / News

Historic preservation mulled

By Margo Sullivan

A complete list of Jamestown’s “significant historical buildings” is in the works, the Planning Commission indicated at its April 16 meeting. Residents will have an opportunity to comment, but not until after the commissioners review the inventory, perhaps at the commission’s May meeting.

The list will identify all the properties the planning board is targeting for preservation, the commissioners said as they continued work on proposed regulations to preserve Jamestown’s historic and community character.

“The plan is to include the design guidelines in the zoning ordinance?” asked Chairman Michael Swistak.

“Yes,” replied Town Planner Lisa Bryer.

“I’m not much in favor of that at all,” Commissioner Michael Smith said.

Bryer said the benefit would be to give homeowners some direction.

Smith wanted to know how many houses would be subject to regulations.

That’s undecided, Bryer said, and the options include “whether they want to regulate new structures, demolitions, renovations [or] restorations.”

The town solicitors are still working on the language and also on a change to the zoning ordinance. The change would give the technical review committee and the planning board the authority to review drawings and decide if the homeowner is attempting to alter the property’s historic or community character. If so, the alterations could be stopped.

Meanwhile, the discussion turned to decisions about which properties to include on the list.

Commissioners Rosemary Enright and Mick Cochran were asked to come up with a draft list based on the 107 “purple book” properties identified in the special development district in the village.

“The rest of us will trust you to come up with the best possible list,” Swistak said.

He asked Cochran and Enright to guesstimate how many of the 107 will make the final cut. Enright anticipated 80 to 90 percent of the original list should be included. But more properties could be added if people make suggestions.

“The Planning Commission asked for a list of all houses built prior to 1945,” Bryer said after the meeting. “That list has 533 houses, which includes most of the purple book properties.”

The commissioners may add some of those properties to the list of significant historic buildings.

But it’s not yet clear whether homeowners can refuse to allow their homes to go on the list in the first place. The commissioners anticipate some Jamestowners will oppose the historic regulations.

“It would be nice to make the list public so people would know,” Cochran said.

The Town Council will ultimately decide whether or not to adopt the regulations, but at its April 16 meeting, the commissioners expressed misgivings that the council will support the planning board’s effort in the face of public opposition.

Swistak urged his colleagues to read a letter from Jamestown resident James Burgess, who wrote in opposition to regulations on “buildings of value,” one of the terms used to describe historic houses.

In his letter, Burgess complained the process was biased and placed an unfair burden on homeowners.

“It sounds like a reintroduction of the same procedure called for in the ordinance debated in the fall of 2013,” Burgess wrote. “The town will enlist ‘experts’ to define historical significance and decree allowable modification.”

Although Burgess opposes the planning board’s views, Swistak wanted to note Burgess is not alone. Other people share his viewpoint.

“We still have to recognize there are people other than James Burgess who have that feeling,” Swistak said. “Not everyone is on the same track.”

Commissioner Bernie Pfeiffer said the commissioners should think about the “ability of individual homeowners to say yea or nay” to being included on the list. Although it would be “very commendable,” he said, if the property owners willingly agreed to be subject to regulations, some people may object.

“There is also the issue of individual property rights, which need to be considered,” he said.

“I have a little concern,” Swistak said.

If 50 homeowners went to the Town Council on the night the regulations are under consideration to “shout it down,” he said, all the commission’s work “goes out the window.” He anticipated that could happen, and if so, the “council collectively wouldn’t have the fortitude to say, ‘Put it through anyway.’”

Pfeiffer suggested polling the residents in advance.

“Perhaps a very quick questionnaire,” he said.

But Swistak doubted a survey would help.

“Use that word ‘historic district,’ and people freak out,” he said. “[They] wouldn’t really grasp the broad brush of design guidelines.”

Jamestown’s guidelines are much less specific than the Narragansett ordinance, for example, which imposes rules about windows, sashes and is “very proscriptive.”

Cochran said Burgess is not objecting to regulations on his own property, but to regulations in general. After the commissioners discussed the possible impact on the Burgess home, the planning board thought it had set Burgess’ “mind at ease.” But the letter showed Burgess is “not at ease at all,” said Cochran. All a survey would accomplish, he said, would be to “give you that knee-jerk reaction” from other residents.

Enright said reluctance was understandable.

“I’m not sure anyone’s interested in being regulated,” she said. “If you ask me, I’ll tell you ‘no.’”

Cochran said concern about regulations is “a hurdle.”

But Smith said it’s only the first hurdle. Burgess and other opponents recognize a problem in giving authority to the technical review committee, with no guarantee the committee will follow Jamestown’s design guidelines.

“They’ll vote the way they want to vote, and that’s what usually happens on these commissions,” Smith said. “That’s what Mr. Burgess is talking about.”

Bryer suggested sending postcards to notify the residents about the meeting on the historic regulations, but recommended against a survey.

Also, the panel discussed the process homeowners will follow if their property lands on the list. The process would start with a regular application for a building permit. Building official Fred Brown would then consult the list and refer people with listed property to the technical review committee for an opinion before they could make renovations to their property. Ultimately, the Planning Commission might review their project.

In other business, the commissioners heard Bryer has asked the councilors to postpone the joint public hearing on the comprehensive community plan. The commissioners also made a “quick fix” to allow later consideration of a conservation development amendment, which was omitted from the comprehensive plan.

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