Before one can build in Newport, every project must pass zoning review. Zoning regulations are rules adopted by governments to control the use, density, height, setbacks and a myriad of other aspects of building. Starting in New York City in 1916, the use of “Zoning Ordinances” has spread outward until almost every jurisdiction in the United States had some form of zoning in place by the mid 1970’s. Newport’s zoning ordinance was adopted such that every lot created after April 13, 1977 is supposed to conform to the current regulations.

On one side, some owners argue that zoning regulations represent an infringement on their property rights. On the other side, proponents of zoning argue that these rules help protect  the “quiet enjoyment” and quality of life of adjacent properties and help assure the safety and happiness of all. Both groups are probably correct to some degree and the challenge becomes how to establish and enforce a set of rules that is fair to neighbors but not so overly restrictive as to prevent equitable use of property by the actual owners. The zoning rules are established by the local government and can be changed whenever the majority of the elected officials believe that it is in the public interest to do so. The change in the zoning at the St. Clare’s home is an example of this type of change that is currently much in the news. Zoning laws are not like the Ten Commandments or the US Constitution—they are sets of rules that are continually changing to reflect the needs and realities of their communities.

Ideally, any zoning ordinance would describe the sort of buildings that the community, through its elected officials, feel would be most appropriate and suitable to any given area. Therefore the degree to which a community’s buildings and zoning conform is a measure of the success of the zoning to accurately portray the community. By this measure Newport’s zoning is among the least successful in the county as an estimated 80% of properties in Newport are “non-conforming” meaning that they do not meet the current guidelines. This occurred when the city adopted a suburban code on a highly urbanized stock of buildings. The net result of this it that nearly every improvement to a property from adding a garden shed to the enlargement of a deck, must go through the complex process of applying for a “Special Use” permit or a “Dimensional Variance.” These are issued by the Zoning Board of Review, which is a group of volunteer citizens appointed by the City Council to sit in judgment of all the applications that must come before them. There are other groups that are involved in governing the construction of new buildings as well. including the Planning Board, which governs the subdivision and combination of lots and the Historic District Commission, which reviews building applications in those parts of the community which lie under their purview. The Comprehensive Land Use Plan Committee is charged with the task of making sure that the underlying plan for the city is in alignment with its actual needs and goals every ten years. All of these groups are made up of ordinary citizens who give of their time without monetary compensation and they are to be lauded for their generosity of spirit in doing so but these are exceptionally complex issues with so the ad hoc slow evolution of zoning does not always work.

Is the goal of these commissions to closely enforce the rules and refuse variances or is it to measure applications with the benefits currently enjoyed by adjacent property owners and grant variances? Perhaps each Commission member would give a slightly different answer. What is certain is that if the Zoning rules do not reflect what the community actual needs and wants, the outcome of the process is bound to be much less ideal than would otherwise be the case. Several neighboring Rhode Island communities like Bristol and Jamestown have undertaken major revisions of their zoning rules to bring them into closer alignment with what the community actually envisions for itself. Theses revisions are being guided by new philosophies that are heavily impacting urban planning and development today: “Form Based Zoning”, “Smart Growth” and “New Urbanism.” Smart Growth is a national movement that believes (in contrast to previous commonly held perception) that conservation and urban development are really two sides of the same coin. By encouraging development (and redevelopment) of city and town centers, advocates of “Smart Growth” believe that rural farms and other irreplaceable assets can be saved from becoming suburban subdivisions and strip malls.

A parallel effort to the Smart Growth movement is called “New Urbanism.” In the Charter of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) written in 1993, New Urbanism is dedicated to the proposition that ”neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.” The irony of the term “New Urbanism”, is that the ideas it espouses are really neither “new” nor are they particularly “urban.” In fact the movement advocates organization of neighborhoods and towns along traditional patterns and using vernacular designs. Newport, with its tightly arranged houses forming street fronts and with its mix of residential, commercial and retail uses has been a model of “New Urbanism” for more than 300 years.

On Tuesday September 6th at 6pm there will be a Forum on “Economic Development in Historic Areas” at the Jane Picken’s Theatre where these and many other topics will be discussed. The panel discussion will be introduced by Governor Linc Chafee and the panelists will be Keith Stokes (Economic Development Director), Ted Sanderson (RI Historic Preservation Director) and Scott Wolf (Executive Director of GrowSmart RI). The panel will be moderated by Joe O’Connor (WRNI general manager) and it should be both an interesting and informative evening. Tickets are available from the Jane Pickens Theatre for a $5 suggested donation and seating is limited, so if planning, zoning and the future of historic urban areas like Newport is of interest to you, please set aside time to attend!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA is an historian, educator and practicing architect who lives in Newport. He is a LEED AP (Accredited Professional) and is a contributor to GrowSmart RI. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, August 25, 2011.

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