2014-12-11 / Front Page

Public Takes Podium

Welcome Center Zoning Hearings Conclude
By Barry Bridges

The Newport Zoning Board of Review met for a third and final hearing on Monday, Dec. 8 as it continued to weigh a request from the Preservation Society of Newport County to construct a welcome center at The Breakers.

A modified special use permit granted by the board is a prerequisite for the proposed facility, which would consolidate ticketing and restroom functions while also selling prepackaged sandwiches, snacks, and beverages to museum guests.

Attorney William Landry once again took the lead in arguing that a permit should be issued to the Society to construct what he described as a modest, but essential, amenity for a world-class museum. Attorney Daniel Prentiss marshaled arguments for the Bellevue-Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA), a group representing residents of the R-60 zone who are opposed to the plan.

BOPNA Winds Up Its Case

As Landry finished calling his witnesses in the previous session, Prentiss was first to take the floor and called BOPNA president James Moore.

In a prepared statement, Moore said that “our neighborhood is united in opposition to the welcome center.” He described the area as “fundamentally residential” but one that has “a delicate balance between the needs of individual property owners, the university [Salve Regina], and the Preservation Society.”

Rejecting previous testimony that food sales are a part of “museum operations” allowed under the Zoning Code, Moore contended that introducing food at The Breakers would allow any museum in the city to open a restaurant. “This board would be powerless to stop that process once it starts,” he said. “This proposal would be a revolution in the understanding of our [traditionally conservative] zoning laws, contrary to its letter and spirit, and would damage the value of our residences.”

During cross-examination, Moore conceded that Newport’s zoning laws authorize a variety of land uses in the R-60 zone, but he was not deterred by Landry’s description of several Salve Regina venues in the neighborhood already serving food.

The parties also sparred over the “Bellevue Avenue/Ochre Point Neighborhood Statement of Vision and Shared Goals,” a document crafted several years ago by BOPNA, the Preservation Society, Salve Regina, and the city which “sets out an agreed-upon vision and set of goals to guide the future of the neighborhood.” Landry and Moore disagreed on whether language conceptually agreeing to food sales in the district was truly endorsed by the association.

Public Offers Pros and Cons

The bulk of the four-hour meeting was reserved for public comments. In the end, there were more than 20 speakers on each side of the issue, with proponents and opponents alternating their times at the dais.

Among those backing the Society was Rhode Island’s Director of Tourism Mark Brodeur, who views the welcome center as a “great hospitality location” that would give a real introduction to the other mansions. “We support The Breakers as a driver into the economy,” he remarked.

Mary Van Pelt, a resident of 315 Bellevue Ave. between Kingscote and the Isaac Bell House, said that the Society is a good neighbor. “We can say absolutely that we have never been negatively impacted,” she said. “In fact, we feel the Society properties near us have done just the opposite. They add to our enjoyment and increase our property values.” Continuing, she described, “As a mom, I take six-year-olds to museums, and we often find ourselves in situations where we need proper amenities. Being able to rest is an important part of museumgoing.”

Martha Sheridan, president of the Providence-Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, spoke of Newport as an integral piece of statewide tourism. She said, “Nowadays it’s all about the visitor experience. The welcome center would be a very holistic approach to represent all that the Preservation Society has to offer.”

Newport County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jody Sullivan said that the plan “will remove structures that are an eyesore and embarrassment and replace them with a small building that is hidden from view.” She also observed, “There is no widespread opposition to this request. The Breakers is the single greatest economic booster in the region, and we are lucky to have it in Newport.”

Architect Sam Frank, who has collaborated with the Society on the project, said “every speaker with preservation credentials has been in favor of this project. Unless the intention is to roll back tourism, it’s difficult to understand why anyone would oppose this project.”

Leading off support for the opposition was Richard Saul Wurman, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, who worried that food at the welcome center would set a zoning precedent. “If you allow a luncheonette, 13 other facilities will do the same. By passing this, you will change the rules.” Similarly, Ronald Dick, 662 Bellevue Ave., characterized an approval as a precedent-setting action which would “stress the residential nature of the neighborhood” and affect all of Newport.

Bartlett Dunbar, who was involved with Newport’s former Circulation Committee, adopted a broader view and said that the city needs a “true welcome center” that would serve all institutions. “If you approve this, it shuts the door on a more appropriate visitors’ center that the City of Newport should have,” he said. “No one should have a my-way-or-the-highway approach.”

Robert Beaver, 225 Ruggles Ave., told the board that it heard a “carefully crafted yarn.” He pointed to a Dec. 4 Wall Street Journal article concluding that The Breakers is “the most uniformly liked” of public estates, notwithstanding its lack of consolidated visitor facilities. “It would seem that tourists prefer quality over amenities,” he stated.

Returning to the food debate, Diane Beaver recited a list of refreshments already available to visitors to The Breakers, such as nuts, chips, cookies, and beverages. She also introduced a past Preservation Society brochure that advertised “lunch” at The Elms and Marble House when those properties offered light sandwiches and snacks. “I’m a former restaurant owner, and believe me, [the welcome center would involve] restaurant-style dining,” she concluded.

Wrapping up opposing comments was Vanderbilt descendant Gladys Szapary, who maintains a residence on the third floor of The Breakers. Describing the museum’s current services, she said, “I’ve never seen a line in the basement restrooms.”

Closing Arguments

The Zoning Board will have to put the public dialogue in the context of the specified factors that are considered in applications for special use permits. While it stands to reason that the parties’ attorneys will fully speak to those standards in their written statements due on Friday, Dec. 19, they nevertheless offered brief oral arguments to close the series of hearings.

The Society’s Landry summarized,

“It was hard to listen to the ‘parade of horribles.’ There is no deception, concealment, or misrepresentation. This is not a restaurant; its primary purpose is not the sale of food.” He described a vision to transfer visitor functions to a “modest, dignified, worthy facility.”

“Our purpose from the beginning was to make [the welcome center] compatible, of small size, and hidden so that it will have zero impact on the surrounding area,” he continued.

Landry rejected the idea that the building would create a precedent. “Special use permits do not create a precedent under the Zoning Code,” he said. “A special use permit is needed in each case, with each judged on its own merits.” Speaking to the board’s upcoming deliberations, Landry concluded, “Most of the comments from the opposition had nothing to do with the standards that the Zoning Board has to consider.”

Taking his turn, BOPNA’s Prentiss focused on ยง 17.100.220 of the Zoning Code, which enumerates six allowed uses for museums, one of which sanctions “sales areas for … museum operations.” As he repeatedly emphasized throughout the proceedings, he reiterated that “serving food is not included in ‘museum operations.’”

If the welcome center plan goes through, Prentiss warned that “any other museum may begin the sale of food in its existing building without coming before the Zoning Board.”

In closing, he said, “Our position is that if this type of change is going to be made in Newport, it should be made by the City Council through appropriate legislative action.”

The board expects to issue its decision on the special use permit by Jan. 5.

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