2017-01-12 / Opinion

Howard Wharf Hotel Hits Snag

By Barry Bridges

A proposal to construct a hotel on a vacant lot along Howard Wharf hit a snag on Thursday, Jan. 5, when the Newport Planning Board questioned its appropriateness on the waterfront.

The 20-room hotel would be a raised structure with parking underneath, rising to a height of 45 feet. That is the maximum allowed at the site’s location in the waterfront business district. The board’s role was to weigh in on whether the project was consistent with the goals of the city’s comprehensive plan.

Attorney Jay Lynch represented the applicant, Vincent Sandonato, who owns The Pier restaurant. In brief remarks, Lynch told the board that an approval from the Zoning Board would be needed since the envisioned footprint of 4,338 square feet would create a lot coverage of 56 percent, exceeding the 40 percent coverage allowance. With five rooms normally permitted on a parcel of that size, a density variance would also be needed. Setback requirements would be met.

Representing an abutter opposed to the project, attorney Turner Scott maintained that the proposal was antithetical to several goals of the 2004 comprehensive plan, which is the version in effect until the state-mandated update under development gets a final approval. Scott emphasized elements such as protecting the harbor and preserving the city’s historic resources.

“These areas along the waterfront are important points in my estimation,” said Scott. “When I was city solicitor we changed the ordinance specifically to preserve the waterfront. You have to ask if this type of development meets the land use goals.

“It’s not a boutique hotel, it’s a big hotel. I can see it meeting some of the goals of the comprehensive plan, such as those concerning tourism and economic development, but I don’t know if it all balances out,” he concluded.

Scott also objected to what he viewed as the potentially precedential effect of a hotel on the property between the harbor and Thames Street, saying that it could open the door to similar development at Lees Wharf, the Yachting Center, Waites Wharf, and Casey’s Marina.

The only public comments came from Friends of the Waterfront’s Johanna Vietry. “We just want to remind the board that Howard Wharf has been a public way since 1989. We’re totally opposed to any special variances, to ensure that the public right of way is not infringed upon.”

She added, “Personally, I’m opposed to any development that obscures the waterfront view. If it looks like Manhattan, no one will need to come to Newport.”

As board members began deliberating, it was clear that the scope of the project was problematic.

“I’m OK with some level of development, but the size and nature of this is scary,” said member Liam Barry. “You’re looking for a lot.” His colleague Wick Rudd said, “You need to come back with something more toned down. It seems a little extensive.”

Chair Kim Salerno agreed. “The degree of relief sought [through the needed variances] indicates how inappropriate this application is. The pattern that would be established here is not desirable and is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.” She noted that the application was weak on the goals of maintaining historic character and natural/cultural resources.

With a unanimous vote, the application was continued to a future meeting to give Sandonato an opportunity to present new designs for the property.

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