2014-10-23 / News

Planners define buildings of value

By Margo Sullivan

The Planning Commission at its Oct. 15 meeting settled on a new definition of “buildings of value.” The so-called term of art is used in the zoning ordinance, and it identifies structures downtown with features that may be worthy of preservation.

The new definition is “much watered down” from the original, said Chairman Michael Swistak. Until a definition of building of values and a list of them were compiled, Article 11 in the zoning ordinance was unenforceable.

Going forward, a building of value is one that “exemplifies the character of the island’s built environment” with respect to its “unique architectural design style or characteristics,” Swistak said. He advised property owners to refer to the state’s purple book for further information.

In plain English, Swistak said, “If you’re built before 1931, you might have a building of value.”

As far as regulations, “nothing is imposed on anybody,” Swistak said. The ordinance encourages property owners to consult the design guidelines before they make changes to the structure.

“You still don’t like it?” he asked Commissioner Michael Smith.

“I still don’t like it,” Smith said.

Members of the audience expressed mixed views about the changes. Conanicut Marine owner Bill Munger said the new version was “something palatable” compared to the regulations that had been in the works.

But others found problems with the new language.

Shoreby Hill resident Betty Hubbard said she did not see how the changes were responsive to the Town Council’s charge to come up with a holistic approach to preservation. Swistak replied that property owners are still going to pick up information at the time they apply for a building permit. Town Planner Lisa Bryer, however, said the timing would be too late. By then, the designs would already be completed.

The planning board has grappled for several months with the issues about how best to protect Jamestown’s character. The panel planned on discussing demolition at its most recent meeting, but it decided “to sleep on” the debate after questions came up about property rights.

As for design guidelines for commercial properties, the topic will wait for input from consultant Don Powers of Union Studio, Bryer said. He would be available next week, she added.

For the time being, the consensus is “to not put any specific building on a list,” Swistak said, “or identify them in the zoning manual in any way, shape or form.” At a previous meeting, the panel decided the best course would be to “deal with buildings of value more generically,” he said. Also, the new language “got rid of any reference to a list of buildings that would be out on a zoning map.”

Shoreby Hill resident Shelly Widoff wanted to know how the design guidelines relate to pre- 1931 buildings. If there are no regulations that must be followed, she asked, then what is the point of including the definition and guide- lines in the zoning ordinance?

Swistak replied the point was to incite people to follow the design guidelines, and he thought encouragement could be part of the ordinance. Property owners had objected to earlier attempts to regulate buildings, he said, and they should be pleased because the planning board has “come back 90 percent” against regulation.

“So meet us half way,” he said.

But Smith said he did not think the design guidelines were adequate and called the document “an amateurish attempt” compared to the restorations property owners have accomplished without regulations. He would not want to use them with his clients, he said.

“I agree,” Hubbard said.

Resident Jack Brittain wanted to know why the planning board settled on 1931. Commissioner Rosemary Enright said the year was the end of the last building boom before the World War II, and the beginning of Great Depression.

Swistak also said the board was responding to criticism about fairness and singling out individual properties. By using that year as a cutoff, everyone in the special development district was being treated the same way.

So the reason had nothing to do with architecture, Brittain said.

Enright agreed.

Bryer said the board intends to wrap up its debate about preservation at its November meeting.

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