2014-06-12 / Front Page

Residents voice concerns with proposed zoning regulations

Board plans to reduce list of 96 affected properties
By Margo Sullivan

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, the Planning Commission heard at its June 4 meeting.

Dozens of property owners attended the meeting at Town Hall to argue against new regulations aimed at preserving Jamestown’s architecture. The regulations are unnecessary, the residents said.

Several people also questioned how the commissioners chose the specific houses on the list, and others complained that the property owners should have been notified before the commission announced its preliminary list of 96 buildings.

Chairman Michael Swistak said the “proposed list is all just discussion” at this point.

“This whole thing could be scrapped a week from now,” he said. “It’s that early in the process. A lot of information has been flying around the community, some accurate, some not.”

So far, he continued, the commissioners have only reached a consensus that Jamestown has “some classic historic homes, and we should make some effort to preserve the way they look.” But otherwise, no decisions have been made.

“We have not identified one single building,” he said. “There is a list of candidates.” Swistak said that the list is not final, and the commissioners intend to whittle it down further.

Meanwhile, the commissioners are “listening very carefully” to fears that Jamestown has too many regulations already.

“We haven’t written a regulation yet,” said Swistak. “We’re listening carefully to what temperature is in the room for regulation.”

Finally, he objected to any link between the ongoing discussion and last year’s debate about establishing Lower Shoreby Hill as an historic district. Some people are saying they’re connected, he said.

“That’s absolutely not true,” Swistak said. “This discussion has been on our agenda since 2008.”

The commissioners, however, put in on the back burner while the historic district was under consideration. Historic districts are nothing new, said Swistak, and Rhode Island already has 50 or 60 of them.

“To get to the heart of the matter, what’s all this building of value stuff?” Swistak asked.

Buildings of value, which is a term used in the zoning ordinance, refer to buildings and homes in Jamestown with “classic architecture.”

For properties to be included in the category, the structure should be “recognizable,” Swistak said, using the Three Sisters at 17, 19 and 23 Conanicus Ave. as an example.

Commissioner Michael Smith predicted the final list would include only about 50 properties. The properties on the draft list come from the “purple book,” a publication by the state heritage commission that identifies historically significant structures.

Victor Bell, of 23 Ocean Ave., wanted to know more about how the commissioners chose the properties on the list.

“How did that get narrowed to (the) houses published in the newspaper?” he asked.

Since there are more than 96 properties identified in the purple book, Bell was curious as to how the commissioners chose the properties that appeared on their draft list. Moreover, if the commissioners do plan to cut the list down to 50 properties, what happens next?

“What is the process?” Bell asked. “How long is that going to take?”

He also asked why the town did not mail notices to homeowners.

About the notices, Swistak indicated that the planning commissioners found themselves in a dilemma because technically, the purple book is already subject to building regulations.

“Do we tell everyone in the purple book, ‘You’re already being regulated?’” he asked. In reality, except for some commercial properties in the special development district, the regulations have not been enforced due to ambiguity in the zoning ordinance. The goal now is to clear up the ambiguity, he said.

“So we decided to come up with the finalists first and then notify,” Swistak said.

“But shouldn’t everyone be noticed there’s a process going on?” Bell asked.

Commissioner Mick Cochran said the notices go out when a decision is to be decided by the Zoning Board of Review. Plus, he said, the commission meetings are public, and that’s considered sufficient notice.

Cochran said it’s “a duty of being a citizen of Jamestown” for residents to look at meeting agendas and stay informed.

Town Solicitor Wyatt Brochu replied that the list is only a proposal. If it ever goes before the Town Council for review, everyone on the list will receive a notice.

Jamestown resident and realtor Carol Hopkins said the town should not interfere with the property owner’s right to decide about the home’s appearance.

“I don’t think there should be a commission that’s decided a house is pretty and should stay that way,” she said. “That’s a big comment.”

Swistak replied that the “goal is not to keep homes frozen in time.”

Hopkins asked for specifics. Take East Ferry Wharf, for example, she said. Are modifications supposed to reflect the way the wharf looked in the 1970s when the heritage commission snapped pictures and put it in the purple book? Or are property owners supposed to refer to the way the wharf looked “back in 1924?”

Commissioner Duncan Pendlebury said the key was to retain the “character-defining elements,” such as the way the property addressed the street.

Jamestown resident Rusty Sallee asked where he can find the purple book, and wanted more details about the draft list.

“What are the objective criteria?” he asked.

Cochran suggested that people speak up if they don’t want their properties on the list. Eliminating those houses might speed up the process, he said.

Steve Frary, of 105 Walcott Ave., said the commissioners should encourage preservation through education, for example, but should not impose regulations. Although the plan “sounds very reasonable and the intentions are excellent,” the effort “is likely to burden just a few property owners,” he said. He also questioned the fairness of regulating just 50 or 100 property owners, and expressed doubts the technical review committee, which will review building plans, wouldn’t be subjective.

Jamestown resident Steve Mecca called the effort to protect the buildings of value a waste of time and said it amounted to “an impossible task.”

“An unnecessary task, I go so far to say.”

If the commissioners want to preserve Jamestown’s character, Mecca said, they should focus on “open space, not allowing fastfood chains” and beefing up laws about noisy motor vehicles.

The planning commissioners listened to residents’ comments and answered their questions until after 9:15 p.m. Commissioner Rosemary Enright asked for an extra meeting in June so the panel can catch up with its work on the design guidelines and the final selection of buildings.

Monday, June 16

The Town Council and Planning Commission will hold a joint workshop at 6 p.m. at Town Hall to discuss historic preservation of Jamestown’s architecture.

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