2018-01-25 / Around Town

HDC Continues Salve Regina Dorm Hearings

By James Merolla

The Historic District Commission voted on Jan. 23 to allow the demolition of five houses on the campus of Salve Regina University, which opens the way for two large dormitories, but only if the final plans for those dormitories are also approved by the Newport Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Review and the university’s board.

The HDC vote was 5-2, with Michael Conroy and Howard Elliott opposing.

After a nearly four-hour public hearing that included a 44-slide PowerPoint presentation by abutters in opposition to the plan, and disputes about legal postings and procedures, the matter was continued to Thursday, Jan. 25.

Hearings will be held before the HDC in a special meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 20 and before the zoning board on Thursday, Feb. 22.

Scheduled for discussion is Salve Regina’s petition for two special use permits to construct a 196-bed dormitory just west of Lawrence Avenue, between Shepard and Victoria avenues, and a 214-bed dormitory on the southern side of Victoria Avenue. Each dormitory would house about 200 students from the junior class. The university hopes to finish the construction by 2019.

But it faces opposition from neighboring abutters who think the buildings are too large.

Because the dormitories are located within the Bellevue Avenue Ochre Point Historic District, the HDC has jurisdiction over the conceptual and final design plans.

Attorney Patrick J. Dougherty, representing property owners along Whitty’s Way, argued that Salve has submitted no formal plan to the city and their suggested plan violates state zoning ordinances. Originally, Salve had to get only a "conceptual design" approved, but Dougherty convinced the board to approve the demolition on the condition that the entire final plan was approved.

If the new dorms are ultimately approved, he said, his clients will fight it in court.

In an email to Newport This Week, Dougherty detailed certain conflicts between the RI Zoning Enabling Act and the Newport Zoning Ordinance that impact the Salve projects.

“In reviewing the project application, procedure, ordinance and Zoning Enabling Act, we have come to the conclusion that provisions of the Newport Zoning Ordinance are not in compliance with state law. The one principal provision that is currently in issue is Ordinance Section 17-88- Development Plan Review. Under Ordinance Section 17.88.020(F) the Salve dormitory projects must be subjected to Development Plan Review. To date, no Development Plan has been submitted to the City,” wrote Dougherty.

Abutter Judy Cutler presented a detailed PowerPoint presentation against the petition, which HDC took in as evidence. She said that making new buildings look old does not retain the historical integrity of the community. One slide superimposed the dormitories to scale inserted into the neighborhood and showed that it would block views of the Breakers mansion and the ocean.

“Five-hundred thousand tourists visit the Breakers, 400 more students will come in, and they all go on Ruggles [Avenue],” said Marilyn Hall, who lives on Ruggles Avenue and says her family has lived there for 100 years. “We cannot even get out of our driveway in the summer. We’ve worked hard to have these homes and they are not easy to maintain. Then, we are going to throw in more people a fourth of a mile away from the Breakers, while everyone else is trying to maintain a normal life? It isn’t fair.

“This dorm is way too big. If it has to go somewhere, it should go on the other end of the island. It should go where the school is.”

Attorney Jay Lynch, representing Salve Regina, presented the conceptual design to the HDC along with architect George Weber.

The vote did not include removing a nursing wing to the historic Watts Sherman House which, due to unclear wording in the HDC agenda and posting, has to be heard in the future as a separate demolition vote. This issue caused confusion throughout the meeting with Dougherty successfully arguing it could not be approved if one hasn’t seen the future plans.

“What would occur if you approve the demolition and you didn’t approve the application? Salve would be free to demolish those structures and build nothing. I do believe that is putting the cart before the horse,” he said

After two recesses, the HDC voted only on the five buildings on the site. “Salve will be back before you for final approval, with the final details,” Lynch said.

“We are going to be in court. Not a doubt in my mind,” Dougherty said.

HDC chair Diana Sylvaria called the application “very incomplete” and asked Lynch for dimensions and a footprint. “This is an awful lot of numbers to digest in one evening,” she said.

“Shouldn’t this be something we have in front of us?” board member Conroy asked.

The board instructed Weber and Lynch to submit site plans by Jan. 25 that included all dimensions, as well as a layout of the houses that exist and a proposed overlay of the two large dorms placed over the lot for a visual aid.

“This application is so significant and we are talking about a very important historic neighborhood, and this proposal will forever change that,” Sylvaria said. “We don’t get a second chance to get it right.”

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