2014-01-31 / Front Page

Welcome Center Resurrected by Zoning Board

By Tom Shevlin

An overflow crowd gathers at Newport City Hall to hear the Zoning Board of Review consider whether to allow a plan to build a welcome center on the grounds of The Breakers. (Photo by Jack Kelly) An overflow crowd gathers at Newport City Hall to hear the Zoning Board of Review consider whether to allow a plan to build a welcome center on the grounds of The Breakers. (Photo by Jack Kelly) The Preservation Society has scored a major victory in its quest to build a welcome center on the grounds of The Breakers.

In a 4-1 vote on Monday, Jan. 27, members of the Zoning Board of Review reversed an earlier decision by the Historic District Commission that found the project to be incompatible with local historic district standards.

The board made relatively swift work of an issue that has dominated headlines and divided friends for months. The majority of board members faulted the HDC for improperly excluding a decision by state preservationists who voted in favor of the plan last year.

Indeed, a vote by the state Historic Preservation and Heritage Office concluded last year that the welcome center “will not remove historic materials or significantly alter character-defining historic features” and that “the new work will be compatible but differentiated from the old and will not destroy the historic integrity of the property.”

With the state signing off on the project, Zoning Board members saw no reason that the city shouldn’t follow suit.

It was the first time in more than 10 years that the Zoning Board has upended a ruling by the HDC, leaving proponents both visibly stunned and elated.

“You never can tell how these things are going to go,” remarked Donald O. Ross, the Preservation Society’s board chairman.

Making his way after the vote through a bevy of well wishers who had turned out for the proceedings, Ross was confident that fences will be mended and that Newport’s preservationist community will come back together.

Since being unveiled last spring, the $4.2 million project has tugged at the seams of Newport society’s closely-knit community.

Opponents of the plan, who were represented by the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association, now have to determine whether to appeal the decision to Superior Court. Jim Moore, president and co-chairman of the association, said that the group is very disappointed but has received a large number of calls offering moral and financial support. However, the association has not decided how to proceed and is considering all options. “We are interviewing appellate lawyers and examining their perceptions as to the reasonableness of an appeal and our likelihood of success,” Moore said. The window for filing an appeal is brief, about three weeks.

Moore argued that it was clear that at least two Zoning Board members substituted their opinion for the opinion of the HDC. “They cannot simply substitute judgment,” he said. “There needs to be a showing of ‘clear error’ in the HDC decision, whether that is procedural error, legal error, or an outcome that is against the weight of the evidence.”

Among the next steps for the Preservation Society is applying for a special use permit from the Zoning Board. That process has a different set of considerations, presenting challengers with new opportunities to protest the plans. Moore noted that a court appeal and the special use permitting procedure could proceed simultaneously.

While not objecting to the concept of a welcome center, opponents have argued that placing the 3,700-square-foot building within the gates of The Breakers will leave a permanent scar on the grounds of one of the nation’s most important architectural sites.

Rather, they say, the center should be built across the street in a parking lot so the 13-acre estate could be preserved.

Their concerns seemed to be validated last week in a letter sent by the National Park Service, which oversees the National Historic Landmark program.

“While we do not have any formal review authority at this time regarding this project,” William C. Bolger, the National Historic Landmark program manager, wrote in a Jan. 24 letter to Preservation Society Executive Director Trudy Coxe, “it is our intention to inform you and other interested parties of what we believe will be the negative impact of the project in advance of its construction. We hope that you will reconsider the plans and choose an alternative that will not damage the [National Historic Landmark].”

He continued, “The Breakers is not just any historic property but a National Historic Landmark and your express purpose in managing it is to present it as a museum property, and a property whose period of significance is tightly tied to the fate of construction…This is not an urban setting which contains a multiplicity of building types and periods, but rather an architectural and landscape sanctuary of the highest aesthetic order.”

The letter, which arrived just one business day prior to the Zoning Board’s scheduled hearing, came as a stinging blow to the Preservation Society.

On Monday, a second letter was received. This time, it was from Bonnie J. Halda, the chief of preservation assistance at the National Park Service.

In it, she wrote that “although our previous letter did voice some of our concerns about the project, it was not clear about our role in the process and our desire to work in partnership with your organization.” She added, “We apologize for the delay of our review and for the timing of our correspondence. Therefore, we are retracting the letter.”

What remains unclear is whether the Park Service has also recanted their concerns about the project.

Coxe, who said that the correspondence “blindsided” her, credited Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., as well as Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., for the letter’s retraction.

Noting that the correspondence added yet another wrinkle to the months-long saga surrounding the proposal, Coxe was confident that the board made the right decision.

“I think everything in Newport is complicated,” she said. “People, you know, are very resistant to change. But that’s just Newport.”

“At some point down the road, this will all smooth out,” added Ross, the Preservation Society’s board chair.

In their summations, several members of the Zoning Board voiced concern that the HDC hadn’t elaborated on their decision for casting their votes.

However, apart from their discussions pertaining to a given application, HDC members in practice rarely offer any explanation for their votes.

Newport Zoning Officer Guy Weston, who was serving as a staff representative to the commission during the hearing on the welcome center, suggested that in the future, the HDC provide further context for their votes – especially for applications that might be denied.

If the welcome center is eventually built, the single story low-slung building would be located just inside The Breakers’ historic main gates off Ochre Point Avenue. A tent structure – which was erected a decade ago as a temporary measure – currently occupies a slightly smaller footprint.

In addition to providing the mansion’s roughly 400,000 annual visitors with a dedicated ticketing and information portal, the proposed welcome center would also feature a small cafĂ©, accessible restrooms, and a climate-controlled seating area.

A historic serpentine garden path, long lost to weather, time, and neglect, would also be reclaimed as part of the project.

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