2014-03-14 / Front Page

Breakers Lawsuit Filed

By Tom Shevlin

The neighborhood group that has been at the center of opposition to a new welcome center on the grounds of The Breakers has filed suit to stop the project.

In a lawsuit filed Friday, March 7 in Newport Superior Court, the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA) argues that the plan, which recently won the approval of the Zoning Board of Review, violates several key provisions of the city's zoning ordinance.

Most notably, the group says that the new commercial structure is antithetical to the neighborhood's residential R-60 zone.

Attorney Daniel Prentiss is representing the group in the suit.

He notes, "The Bellevue-Ochre Point neighborhood is a unique residential area of historic significance. It includes estates with great mansion residences on large, land- scaped lots on quiet streets on or near the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the mansion residences are designated on the National Register of Historic Places and seven are National Historic Landmark properties. The neighborhood is a National Historic District on its own, and as part of the larger National Historic Landscape District with Bellevue Avenue running through its core."

According to the suit, homes in the area are dependent on the preservation of "the essential characteristics of the neighborhood and its status as a National Historic District."

Spread out over 3,700 square feet, the proposed new building's design draws on inspiration from park structures found in such landscapes as New York's Central Park, replete with expansive windows, a copper roof, and ornamental metal work.

And while proponents say that the building would be an improvement over the large tent that currently greets visitors to the site, the building would also feature a cafe which BOPNA argues constitutes a restaurant use that is outside the bounds of the neighborhood's zoning.

Jim Moore, president and cochairman of BOPNA, told Newport This Week that the association is asking the court to issue a declaratory judgment on three separate points of law to guide all parties in moving forward.

First, Moore said, because the museum at The Breakers existed prior to the enactment of Newport’s zoning ordinances in the 1970s, it is excepted from the requirement of a special use permit to operate in a residential zone. According to Moore, the resulting nonconforming use cannot be intensified or used elsewhere on the property. “The welcome center would be a change prohibited by city ordinances because it would not be a museum activity; it would be a restaurant with a focus on food service.”

The second argument, related to the first, is that zoning ordinances forbid museums from operating restaurants offering food to the public. Allowing this would be an “enormous change” and a huge precedent for the city, which would establish a precedent allowing other properties such as Rough Point, Beechwood, and Belcourt to follow suit, Moore said. “This would be devastating to Bellevue Avenue.”

Finally, Moore maintains that the welcome center would be an “accessory use” within the meaning of the zoning laws, which is only allowed for current museums in the sale of goods to the public, not food. He emphasized that food service is the primary purpose of the proposed welcome center, in that two-thirds of the facility is being planned for that purpose.

The Preservation Society disagrees with these points.

"The Preservation Society believes the lawsuit is completely without merit, and we will vigorously defend against it," said Andrea Carneiro, the society's director of communications.

In past months, the Preservation Society has defended the plan as the best possible solution for ensuring the economic vitality of their organization, which relies heavily on ticket sales from the former Vanderbilt manse. The Breakers draws roughly 400,000 people through its gates each year.

However, for members of BOPNA, the threat of a large ticketing and cafe pavilion goes to the heart of their quality of life.

"The quality and character of the neighborhood exists because a delicate balance has been achieved between the primary, residential use and the more intensive, public, and quasi-commercial uses of college/university and museum," Prentiss wrote in the pleadings.

"Maintenance of this delicate balance is critical to the enjoyment by BOPNA members of their properties, and the maintenance of the values of those properties."

Rather than building the pavilion as planned, BOPNA has argued that a more suitable structure could be built across the street from The Breakers on an existing parking lot.

Initially, the city's Historic District Commission agreed with the objectors, expressing concerns over disturbing the historic fabric of one of Newport's most important architectural and cultural landmarks.

A similar concern was also expressed by the National Park Service, which oversees the Historic Landmark program and wrote a letter to that effect shortly before a critical vote was scheduled to be heard by zoning officials. That letter, however, was retracted a few days later in light of what Park Service officials said was poor timing.

The Preservation Society ultimately overcame those concerns, successfully appealing the decision by the HDC to the Zoning Board, in January determined the historic panel had erred in the decisionmaking process.

BOPNA is also planning a separate lawsuit to appeal that decision, leaving the fate of the welcome center still far from certain.

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