2017-10-05 / Opinion


Maybe Now is the Time for a Zoning Review

Zoning is like the third rail of government: politicians are deathly afraid to touch it, and often with good reason. And yet zoning regulations are the “instruction manual” that we give our citizens and developers to tell them what it is that we, as a community of people, want them to build. In the case of Newport, what we have and what the zoning code says we should have are two remarkably different things. There are few if any other places in the United States where upwards of 80 percent of all existing buildings would not be in conformance with current zoning code, which includes such wide-ranging limitations as use of the property, building coverage and height, and sets minimums for property size, building setbacks from property lines, and even number of parking spaces. Newport’s Zoning Code was enacted on April 12, 1977 and there have been relatively few amendments to its zoning ordinances since 1991.

As Newport was largely built out at the time of the adoption, the impact of the zoning ordinance has been much smaller than it would have been in a community with large numbers of undeveloped tracts of land. Still, the adoption of a zoning code that was typical of the mid-70s, when the code was written and adopted, call for larger residential lots than currently exist, much bigger setbacks than are typical to existing neighborhoods, and much more defined uses within the particular zoning districts than were present before the adoption of the ordinance.

The discrepancy between the existing building stock and the current zoning has both advantages and disadvantages that are often two sides of the same coin. The incongruities mean that almost any new construction or addition must go before the zoning board as an increase to a non-conforming structure. This slows the building process and makes construction more time-consuming and difficult, but on the other hand help protect the integrity of the community through oversight of the volunteer commissioners and Newport City staff members who serve as support and advisory for the commissions.

As a result, it often takes several months to have an application even heard before the Zoning Board of Review, and applications before the Historic District Commission can be contentious and expensive for applicants.

What in the world around us has remained largely unchanged since the mid-70s? Not technology. Not the environment. Not the economy. And certainly not building construction. In the past year, Newport has seen a boom in hotel construction proposals and large houses being built adjacent to historic structures in non-historic styles, simply because the owners were able to weave their way through the maze of zoning and application requirements without setting off the alarms of nearby neighbors.

The recent flood damage in Houston, one of the last in the country without a zoning ordinance, shows the dangers of having too little control on what a property owner wishes to build, regardless of the impact on the community or the environment. Other communities, where every aspect of building design down to the color of a front door is controlled, may show the dangers of too much control by a municipality. Somewhere in between is a happy medium that will balance individual property rights and the best long-term benefit for the community, but we will never find that place unless we work as a community to find it.

Newport is fortunate in having the Zoning Board of Review, the Historic District Commission and the Planning Board, three hard-working and capable bodies of volunteer governance, as well as capable staff support in the form of the Zoning Officer, Historic Planner and City Planner to help lead the process from their hard-earned experience and knowledge.

It may be time to take a hard look at the ordinances and bring them more into line, not only with current best practices and standards but most importantly, into line with what Newport voters and property owners truly want our city to be and look like in the decades to come.

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