2014-10-02 / Front Page

Breakers Hearings Delayed

By Barry Bridges

Two special meetings of the Newport Zoning Board of Review that had been scheduled to consider the Preservation Society’s application for a special use permit to construct a welcome center at The Breakers have been delayed.

The back-to-back hearings had originally been set for Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 29 and 30, but they were canceled after a recusal by board Vice Chair Lynn Ceglie meant that a quorum could not be established on those evenings.

Ceglie, who is vying for the Second Ward City Council seat in November’s election, recused herself from the hearings after answering a question about the Preservation Society’s victualing license application at a forum for Second and Third Ward candidates hosted by the Alliance for a Livable Newport (ALN) on Sept. 23.

In the “yes or no” segment of the ALN event, the moderator asked, “Do you support the granting of a victualing license to serve food and beverages in Newport’s museums that are in residential zones?” The question was presumably referencing the City Council’s 4 to 3 vote on May 28 that denied a request by the Preservation Society to continue with its past practice of serving light sandwiches and snacks at Marble House and The Elms Carriage House.

Ceglie’s hand went up in the “yes” column, along with Third Ward candidate John Edwards. When the office hopefuls were given 30 seconds to elaborate on their responses, Ceglie said, “The issue of sandwiches at the Preservation Society is a little tricky for me because I am going to be chairing the Zoning Board meetings [on the application for a special use permit]. Having said that … my take on it is there’s no restaurant, there’s no cooking facility, these are strictly sandwiches brought in by a vendor, so on a personal level I believe that that’s fine.”

She removed herself from the proceedings the next day. She told Newport This Week that since the question concerned a victualing license that is typically approved by City Council and not the Zoning Board, she thought it was fine to respond. However, in a written statement, she said, “I decided to recuse myself from The Breakers hearing out of an abundance of caution after I answered a question at the ALN candidate forum about the council’s denial of a victualing license for Marble House and The Elms. I did not want my participation to be a distraction at the hearing.”

Ceglie’s decision posed a problem for the impending welcome center hearings, as Zoning Board Chair Rebecca McSweeney had previously recused herself from the matter, citing her legal work for the Preservation Society. “I am still on the society’s list of attorneys and could still be doing legal work for them in the future,” McSweeney said.

Because a third member of the seven-person Zoning Board was unavailable on the two September dates, there would be no voting quorum.

The city’s zoning staff is coordinating with the board to reschedule the hearings. While the next regular session is on the calendar for Monday, Oct. 27, there are no plans to consider the welcome center request at that time. “The board decided to hear the Preservation Society’s application at special meetings because we anticipate that the parties’ presentations will take too long for our regular meeting. It would pre-empt other petitions,” said McSweeney.

Preservation Society Communications Manager Andrea Carneiro indicated that the nonprofit organization remains prepared to argue its case that a special use permit is warranted. “We were ready in September and will be ready to go whenever the meetings are rescheduled.”

In light of their recusals, McSweeney and Ceglie will be on the sidelines regardless of when the board ultimately convenes, meaning that the decision on the welcome center will fall to the remaining three board members (Donald Boucher, Christopher Kirwin and Michael Martin), plus two alternate members who will move into voting positions (Heidi Blank and Robert Buzard). "The Zoning Board is very capable and they'll do just fine," said Ceglie.

After hearing arguments from parties on both sides of the issue, the board can give its OK for the project if it determines that the proposed welcome center is “in accord with the public convenience and welfare,” taking into account such criteria as the size and shape of the proposed center; possible parking issues; whether the center is in harmony with the surrounding area; the proximity of dwellings, churches, and schools; and fire hazards. Conformance with the city’s comprehensive plan is also a factor. The Newport Planning Board issued an advisory opinion on Sept. 4 to the effect that issuing a permit in this case would be consistent with the goals and purposes of the comprehensive plan.

The welcome center proposal was previously before the Zoning Board earlier this year, but in that hearing the board was limited to reviewing a decision of the Historic District Commission that had rebuffed the Preservation Society’s construction plans. Zoning reversed the HDC and issued the required certificate of appropriateness, but it has yet to consider a special use permit.

Even if the society is successful with its application, continuing court challenges to the building plans could create delays in moving forward.

Return to top