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Zoning / Historic Preservation: Zoning Board Had Authority To Interpret Ordinance, Approve Museum Addition

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

A zoning board---not a court---was the right entity to determine whether a museum operating on a special use permit within a residential area could construct an additional building.

Facts: The Breakers is a historic Vanderbilt summer home in Newport, Rhode Island that has operated as a museum since 1948. The Preservation Society of Newport County has been operating the museum since then, and it has owned the property since 1972. In 1977, Newport amended its zoning ordinance to allow museums under a ''special exception'' in the residential zone where the Breakers is located. A later amendment to the zoning ordinance changed the term ''special exception'' to ''special use.''

In 1997, the Preservation Society applied for and received as special use permit to build a 144-square-foot shed on the Breakers. The shed houses vending machines for museum patrons who are waiting to enter the 70-room mansion.

In 2013, the Preservation Society began the process of obtaining permission to build a 3,650-square-foot Welcome Center near the entrance of the Breakers. The Welcome Center would be hidden in the trees and not visible from the street or to neighbors. Its purpose was to contain areas to sell tickets and refreshments, and to house restrooms. The Preservation Society first applied for a certificate of appropriateness from the Newport Historic Commission, which denied the application. The Preservation Society then appealed to the City of Newport Zoning Board of Review, which reversed the historic commission's decision and concluded that the Welcome Center complied with the relevant historic zoning provisions.

Within a week of the zoning board's decision, the Bellevue-Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA) brought a declaratory judgment ac[...]

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