Warren eyes toughened demolition ordinance

The house at 5 Westminster St. as it appeared in February. The house at 5 Westminster St. as it appeared in February.
The house as it appeared last October, soon after work began.

The house as it appeared last October, soon after work began.

The house at 5 Westminster St. as it appeared in February.

The house at 5 Westminster St. as it appeared in February.

Owners of homes 100 years old or older will need town permission to demolish or substantially alter them, if a series of ordinance changes pushed for by the Warren Voluntary Historic District Commission (WVHDC) are enacted by the Warren Town Council.

The changes were introduced to the town council Tuesday night and received a mixed reception.

Several, including Cathie Tattrie, said the proposal is sure to be unpopular with many residents, and she and council president Chris Stanley said they worry about the changes’ impact on property rights. However, one councilor said the measures deserve a hearing, regardless of their predicted unpopularity.

“It’s a first reading,” councilor Scott Lial said in response to concerns raised by Ms. Tattrie. “People that aren’t in favor of this aren’t here. Well, why? (The meeting) was posted properly. I don’t understand why you defend someone who’s not here.”

What’s at stake

Under Section 4-32 of the zoning ordinance (Demolition of buildings or structures in the National Historic Waterfront District), no building or structure located in the district can be demolished unless the town council has granted a waiver. The proposed changes broaden and expand that section in several ways.

First, demolition — not currently defined in the existing ordinance — would be defined as the removal of “an existing structure entirely or in substantial part” — specifically,  50 percent or more of the building, not including decks or porches.

Second, the changes broaden the ordinance’s reach, from just the historic district to the entire town, for buildings 100 years old or older.

“The VHDC over the years has seen changes to historic properties,” said board vice chairman Ed Theberge. “We’re trying to protect them.”

One example is a late 1800s house at 5 Westminster St. owned by Hirum Jamiel. Mr. Jamiel received a building permit last year to remodel the house, and few if any neighbors objected at the time. Since then, though, the house has been drastically altered. Little is left of the original two-story structure, which now rises three floors, and the home has drawn the ire of the Warren Preservation Society and some neighbors.

The ordinance change was precipitated mostly by that case, Warren Preservation Society’s Eileen Collins said, because there was no clear definition of “demolition” to guide Warren Building Inspector William Nash.

“It just went way too far,” Ms. Collins said prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

Levels of review

The proposed changes not only define demolition and broaden the ordinance’s reach, but also add additional layers of review. As written, the proposal:

* Requires a VHDC review of all demolition waiver applications before they go to a hearing in front of the town council.

“WVHDC shall comment on historical context, architectural value and any replacement structure.”

* Call for the VHDC to make recommendations to the council on demolition waivers should the planned demolition or alteration include changes to the roof of the structure.

* Impose a fine of $1,000 per day for buildings demolished without an approved waiver.

Though Mr. Theberge told the council that the VHDC’s role is purely advisory, and the real reason for the proposal is to “normalize” policy across town, several councilors worried about the far-reaching impacts the proposed changes could have.

“There’s a whole lot of people that are not going to be comfortable” with the proposal, Ms. Tattrie said.

“I would have the same concern, I think, that Cathy does,” added Mr. Stanley, who called for a workshop on the matter. “There are some property rights issues and things like that.”

Town solicitor Anthony DeSisto said he’d like to review the changes and bring the proposal back at the council’s next meeting in June. Some of the wording could use a legal eye, he said.

“I’d like to make sure it’s a structurally sound ordinance that doesn’t have to be demolished later by the town council,” he quipped.

That’s fine, Mr. Lial said, imploring the council to take real action on the ordinance, either way, instead of just dragging its feet.

“I disagree with the council president that a workshop is always the answer,” Mr. Lial said. “We’re at the point where we’re delaying things and taking no action. I want to make sure we don’t push this along ad infinitum.”

Authors

4 Comments

  1. Metacomment said:

    Bill Nash doesn’t enforce any building or property ordinances, why should we worry about this one?

    Mr. Lial – why aren’t the agendas to town meetings posted on the Town of Warren website? You would get a better turnout at town council meetings if the town clerk communicated better.

    **Update**
    http://clerkshq.com/default.ashx?clientsite=warren-ri

    Apparently the agendas and minutes are posted here. But minutes from the past 2 months are missing. When can we expect those? I thought, legally, they have to be posted the next day.

  2. Cathietats said:

    I “defend” (Mr. Lial’s word), represent (my word) people who are not at the Town Council meetings, because that is exactly what they elected me to do.
    The ordinance being proposed has very good merits, however, the way it is listed on the agenda is a very narrow view of what they are looking to change. While the agendas are posted, (Metacomment, look to the Secretary of State website to get all agendas past and pending under open meetings.) the information we receive is not there. Currently only certain portions of town are affected by demolition permits, if you read the agenda, you would have no way of knowing that it is suggested to go outside of the affected areas.
    So for that reason, I think there should be more information given to those who were never affected but would be, should the ordinance go through as suggested. By using an age of the structure, every year, a new group of homes will be affected, whether they have any significance at all (Very similiar issue we faced with the significant tree ordinance) .

  3. John Tats said:

    I commented on this nonsense once before, I can see that a select few have their priorities fouled up. So I will repeat them for those whom missed this the first time it raised it’s ugly head. Not one person ever complained about the condition the property Mr. Jamiel now has that is in question. Prior to him purchasing it. He should be given a reward for taking a run down, broken down property and investing in it’s restoration. To His liking I might add! No one on the outside is giving him the money to rebuild it. So why should the Town or others for that matter tell him , or anyone else for that matter what they can do with their property? With all the other things that need attention, we chose to once again go after property owners rights as a important subject. I for one don’t need anyone on this Council telling me or anyone else in Town what we should be doing with our property. Perhaps a phone call to the ACLU is the answer here to put a select few Councilors back on track with what they should be paying attention too. If my memory serves me rite, This was something the Town planner wanted changed the last time a similar article was written about this.
    The last thing this Town needs is another ordinance. It wasn’t hard finding 25 plus residents to fight the last attempt at a foolish ordinance ….I don’t think it will be hard finding many more for this one either.

  4. Smile2 said:

    The town should not have a say in what I do with my property. I pay for it, I do what I want with it.
    Where is the freedom, politicians are spending too much time on things they shouldn’t be concerned with. Let’s work on getting these vacant buildings occupied!

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