Some call it a renovation, others a full-blown demolition. Whatever it is, the construction going on at 5 Westminster St. is hard to miss and may ultimately play a role in changing Warren’s demolition ordinance.
The home, an early 1900s tenement owned by 5 Westminster St. LLC, has been completely transformed since work started there about six months ago. The owners, led by LLC principal Hirum Jamiel, tore down most of the structure and rebuilt it on a larger scale, bringing the building to three stories tall. Work is ongoing.
The owners have approval for their work from the Warren Zoning Board, which last February granted them a special use permit and several setback variances. They’ve also got a building permit from building inspector William Nash, and he said it does not appear that they have violated either the approval or the permit.
Not everyone is happy, however.
Warren Voluntary Historic District Commission members recently discussed the build and some are now wondering why the building, which lies within the Waterfront Historic District, did not have to go through a public hearing process that is required of homes in the district that are to be demolished or substantially altered.
Eileen Collins, a member of the VHDC and the president of the Warren Preservation Society, said it’s pretty clear to her and others that there should have been a public hearing similar to the one held when the JD Tuell home at the corner of Wheaton and Hope was considered for demolition last year.
“There’s nothing left of the original house,” she said. “There should have been more public involvement in this.”
Mr. Nash said this week that the owners are still holding true to the permit and the zoning board approvals, though the plans changed along the way due to unforeseen rotted wood issues that forced him to “take down more than it looks like he originally intended to.” However, whether or not a hearing was required is another story, he said. The answer is complicated by the fact that Warren’s zoning ordinance, especially with respect to demolition, is extremely vague and open to interpretation.
“It was written back in the 70s,” he said. “There’s a lot of language that we’re finding that is really not clear, legally. So we have to update it; for years Caroline (Wells, town planner) and I have supported any potential rewrite. We need to fix it.”
The town is actually heading that way soon, he said. Warren is set to begin updating its Comprehensive Community Plan and at that time, he hopes that vague areas of the zoning code, including that for demolition, are cleared up and re-written.
“We need to fix it, and I think we’re heading that way. We need to move forward on this.”
Ms. Collins said the preservation society is on board with a potential re-write. She said that while it may be too late to change the outcome on Westminster, as a member of the preservation society she would like to see the town’s demolition ordinances “tightened up” to make it easier for town officials to require public hearings or other recourse when buildings in the district are targeted for demolition or undergo construction that significantly alters their character.
“We need it,” she said. “I think there needs to be some kind of protection not only for the houses, but for the neighbors. They have no recourse.”