2014-05-29 / Front Page

Victualing License Denied

By Barry Bridges

In a much-anticipated vote, the Newport City Council has denied a victualing license to the Preservation Society of Newport County which would have sanctioned the serving of light sandwiches and snacks at Marble House and The Elms Carriage House. The Society, along with its caterer co-applicant, Glorious Affairs, Ltd., sought formal permission to continue with its current practice of selling prepackaged sandwiches, wraps, salads, and drinks to ticketed museum guests. The food has been prepared off-site by the caterer with daily deliveries to the museum properties.

The Preservation Society had stipulated to certain conditions to the license and highlighted these limitations in its presentation to the council. The Society agreed to prohibitions on serving alcohol and hot food, while also specifying that no stove, grill, oven, or cooking utensils would be used on the premises. The victualing application indicated that the hours of operation at Marble House would be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., while the hours at The Elms would be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The application created somewhat of a local buzz and was criticized by opponents who worried that the license would encourage other historic properties to offer food services. Such operations, the argument goes, would change the character of some of Newport’s residential neighborhoods. Other objectors contended that offering snacks to patrons could slowly snowball into full-service restaurants adversely impacting local businesses.

Supporters of the Society maintained that a license would simply formalize a continuation of past practices and constitutes a reasonable amenity expected by visitors. They also refuted the contention that light catered snacks would grow into full-fledged food services or expand to other museums.

Part of the council’s discussion focused on whether zoning ordinances were satisfied and whether the City Council was even an appropriate venue to raise such questions. Newport zoning officer Guy Weston advised the panel that the Society’s proposal met zoning requirements as an accessory use for a museum, but Councilors Michael Farley, Kathryn Leonard, and Jeanne-Marie Napolitano continued to press zoning issues throughout the session.

Attorney William Landry, representing the applicants, maintained that while zoning is relevant, the Zoning Board has to resolve potential problems in that sphere. The council’s job, he said, was to focus on the health and safety issues inherent in granting food licenses. In this vein, he solicited testimony regarding food handling practices from Barbara Howlett, the owner of Glorious Affairs, and Cynthia O’Malley, the director of retail sales for the Preservation Society. Councilors did not express any doubts as to the health and safety prong of the equation.

Dan Prentiss, representing the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association, testified against issuing the license. Contradicting Landry, he argued that the council should not “blind itself to zoning ordinances when making your decision.” He asserted that the relevant law has six specified uses for museums, with serving food to the public not among them.

Following public comments, councilors offered their thoughts on their deliberations. Farley continued to stress his perception that the city’s zoning laws posed a problem for food being served in museums. He reviewed applicable legal precedent and said “the legislature and the Rhode Island Supreme Court have given councilors broad authority to consider impacts on the community when considering victualing licenses.”

Napolitano praised the work of the Preservation Society but declined to consider it the only “goose that laid the golden egg.” She felt that other “golden gooses,” like restaurants, are part of the diverse Newport community that deserve consideration in decisions that could impact their business. “It is with a heavy heart that I will not support [the license],” she said.

Councilor Justin McLaughlin also emphasized the Society’s important role in Newport, but wasn’t confident that proper controls were in place to protect the city in issuing food licenses.

Mayor Henry Winthrop and Councilor Marco Camacho tried to draw a more distinct line between zoning issues and health and safety considerations, with both deferring to Weston’s judgment that requirements were satisfied.

The vote to deny the license was 4 to 3, with Farley, Leonard, McLaughlin, and Napolitano against, and Winthrop, Camacho, and Councilor Naomi Neville supporting the application.

Return to top