2014-12-04 / Opinion

Welcome Center Debate Goes On and On

And on it goes. To build a welcome center on the grounds of The Breakers, or not to build? That is—and long has been— THE question.

Looking back at an additional eight hours of testimony before the Newport Zoning Board of Review on Dec. 1 and 2, it was hard to stifle a smile at times. During the hearings for a modified special use permit, the Preservation Society’s John Rodman was asked about projected daily food consumption at the welcome center. He gave an estimate of 30 sandwiches, 30 wraps, and 30 salads, in addition to snacks and bottled drinks.

After months of wrangling over the welcome center, are we down to chips, wraps, salads and sandwiches?

Another witness, Dr. Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, told the board that of the 50 most-visited accredited museums, 88 percent provide some type of food service, ranging from light snacks to upscale dining experiences. Bell added that he was not aware of any museums prohibiting food because of zoning laws.

Cynthia O’Malley, the director of retail sales for the Preservation Society, gave detailed testimony on the extent of food operations previously in place at The Elms and Marble House.

And the food discussion was not over.

The Bellevue-Ochre Point Neighborhood Association, representing a district of about 250 homes, opposes the welcome center. The group maintains that the Zoning Board should not modify an existing special use permit to enable the sale of refreshments in a residential district.

Roland Chase, an attorney well-versed in Rhode Island zoning laws, testified that Newport’s regulations do not allow a new building at The Breakers because the mansion constitutes a “nonconforming use,” and that, in any event, the “plain and ordinary language” of relevant zoning provisions does not permit museums to serve food.

And on it goes. The zoning hearings conclude with further arguments from BOPNA against the petition on Monday, Dec. 8. The public will also have an opportunity to comment then. The attorneys have until Dec. 19 to submit written statements, and the board will announce its decision on Jan. 5.

This is perhaps the public’s last chance to contribute to the conversation. We invite our readers who would like have their say on the issue to send us their opinions as letters to the editor.

Of course, we wonder where this will all end. It would come as no surprise if the unsuccessful party takes the Zoning Board’s Jan. 5 decision to court, adding to a separate appeal previously filed and awaiting disposition.

And on it goes.

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