2015-01-08 / Front Page

Welcome Center Receives Final Approval

Zoning Board Issues Special Use Permit
By Barry Bridges

In one of the final steps in the Preservation Society of Newport County’s long campaign to construct a welcome center at The Breakers, the Zoning Board of Review issued a special use permit for the project at its meeting on Monday, Jan. 5. The 4-to-1 vote clears the way for construction to begin, although the possibility of an appeal looms.

“We’re very appreciative and thankful that the board made such a thoughtful decision,” Society attorney William Landry said. “The board was clearly familiar with the record and post-hearing submissions. We felt that we presented solid evidence concerning each of the factors that the board had to consider in issuing the permit.”

The $4.2 million welcome center would consolidate ticketing and restroom areas into a new 3,700-square-foot facility and would also offer prepackaged sandwiches, snacks, and beverages to museum guests. The Society’s permit application before the Zoning Board actually sought a modification to an existing special use permit issued in 1997 that allowed a shed for vending machines to be set up near the mansion gates.

The Bellevue-Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA), whose members live in the surrounding R-60 zone, has strongly lobbied against the petition.

Attorney Daniel Prentiss has represented BOPNA in its efforts to block the plans. After Monday’s decision, Prentiss said, “Our position all along has been that the sale of food is not allowed by the zoning ordinance, which contains a completely encompassing definition of what museums can do. The sale of food is not included. The board ignored that ordinance.”

The issue arrived before zoning members after previously winning approvals from other city boards. Although the Historic District Commission initially denied a required certificate of appropriateness in 2013, its holding was overturned on appeal. The Planning Board has also given its thumbs up, while two lawsuits filed by BOPNA were dismissed.

The most recent decision was announced after three hearings in December, when the Society presented expert witnesses to demonstrate that the project satisfied the seven factors that are relevant to special use permit applications: the size and shape of the proposed structure; resulting traffic patterns; the nature of the surrounding neighborhood and the extent to which the use will be in harmony with the area; the proximity of dwellings, churches, schools, and public buildings; resulting fire hazards; the zoning ordinance; and conformance with Newport’s comprehensive plan.

BOPNA focused its arguments on the neighborhood character and zoning ordinance elements, arguing that the initiative would bring a restaurant to a residential zone. Further, Prentiss strenuously maintained through his witnesses that museums aren’t authorized to sell food under local regulations.

Elaborating on their conclusions, acting chair Christopher Kirwin and board members Heidi Blank and Michael Martin agreed with the Society that the welcome center as envisioned satisfied the enumerated factors.

Donald Boucher offered expanded remarks on his reasons for favoring the proposal. “The Breakers’ value to our community is as a museum,” he said. “We’re looking to keep it historic, but we have to take care of such properties in a different kind of way. We have to put it into a contemporary framework.” He emphasized that tourism is a foundation of the Newport economy.

He disagreed that the facility would be a restaurant. “This view was best articulated by people who own restaurants,” he said. “They were the least concerned of the stakeholders. They want to bring people into Newport.”

Boucher also described the project as modest, hidden by vegetation, and simply a replacement for what is already there, finding it to be harmonious with the neighborhood. “What they’ve drawn up is aesthetically pleasing, is minimal in scope, and is in keeping with what is best in Newport.”

The lone zoning member aligning with BOPNA was Robert Buzard, who felt that the proposal improperly expanded the scope of the 1997 permit. “The relocation of existing services into a more elegant building does not conflict with the special use permit criteria, but the expansion of services troubles me,” he said.

“The proposed food offerings look like a restaurant to me,” he added, seeing a significant risk to the residential neighborhood. Before voting against the project, he suggested adding a condition to the permit that would prohibit the Society from serving meals, but the board declined to embrace the idea.

In a conversation with Newport This Week, Landry said that the Preservation Society had no prior indication of what the outcome would be. “No one knew what they were thinking until they articulated their decision,” he said.

Describing his approach during the December hearings, he said, “Each case stands on its own merits and as a lawyer my job was to show that the criteria specified in the zoning ordinance were satisfied in this instance. That is really the only thing that is relevant.”

As for what happens next, Prentiss said that BOPNA will have to determine whether to appeal to the Superior Court. “That is my strong recommendation,” he stated. “With a clearly erroneous decision, the place you go is to court.”

The association can file an appeal within 20 calendar days of the board’s written order, which is expected to be issued later in January. The Superior Court, normally a forum for trials, would sit as an appellate panel in this case and examine the record to determine whether the law was correctly applied. No additional evidence or testimony would be presented.

Although the Society now has its modified special use permit in hand, beginning work on the welcome center is complicated by the potential court action. Landry indicated that a start date is uncertain at this point.

“There are practical aspects to the timing of construction and the investment of money when there is an appeal pending,” he said. “While we have confidence that the Zoning Board decision is well grounded, the Society is a good steward of its funds and has to proceed prudently.”

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