It looks as if the mansion and the even lovelier caretaker’s cottage at the Beresford-Nicholson estate on Blackstone Boulevard may be coming down. The developer, the Bilotti Group, brought to Tuesday afternoon’s meeting, as requested, a concept to subdivide the land for a development of ten houses without demolishing the mansion, then told the commission it would not accept any plan that did not let them raze the entire estate.
So the commission nodded its collective head in sorrow, commiserated with the neighborhood’s lack of historic district protection, ignored unanimous testimony in opposition to the Bilotti proposal, declared that the “rule of law” must prevail, and voted to allow the cynical plan to advance.
Here’s an example of its cynicism. Because a plan cannot be approved with a lot line through the middle of an existing house (in this case the mansion), the developer volunteered (as if it were some sort of sacrifice) to merge into one lot the two on which the house stands – and only then demolish the house, so that the lot could be split into two lots again.
The commission swallowed this proposal instead of requiring the developer to return with a serious plan to subdivide the property without razing its existing structures. One idea might to be to keep the manor house and the outbuildings, including the caretaker cottage. To raze that, said an article in Rhode Island Monthly, would be like “bulldozing the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs.” Instead of building ten cheesy buildings like the five new houses of Bilotti’s nearby subdivided Bodell estate, build three, four or five very, very fine houses that might sell for as much or more than the ten cheesy houses. Houses built up to the standards of the neighborhood would moot objections based on the current proposal’s violation of the comprehensive plan, which is festooned with requirements that the historical character of neighborhoods be protected. (My blog post “Showdown on Blackstone” lists 15 of them.)
Unfortunately, the City Plan Commission staff, or, as one speaker testified, a judge from East Greenwich, or both, have talked commission members into ignoring the obvious priority of the city’s comprehensive plan over its zoning laws, which are intended as guidelines to carry out its comprehensive plan. I am no lawyer, so maybe in Providence the law does reverse the priority, but that ruling is only ten years old. What was the priority until ten years ago? Is the ruling that changed the priority open to challenge? The Rhode Island law mandating that each municipality have a comprehensive plan was passed in 1988, and it required that zoning comply with the comprehensive plan of each city and town. Apparently, legal precedent here is arguable, based on the fact that it has been argued in the past.
So what is to be done?
The commission should vote down the final Bilotti Group proposal, unless it submits one that obeys the comprehensive plan, and challenge the developer to sue. The developer must then decide whether to go to court to uphold the developer’s interpretation (and the current CPC staff’s interpretation) of the issue. The developer might win. But also he might lose. Even before any decision, he might throw up his hands and run out of the room in disgust at the city’s “opposition to progress,” otherwise known as safeguarding its economic future. Or the owner might sack him and hire a more capable developer to do the right thing. (And probably make him more money: unimaginative developers are sinkholes of investment funds.)
Stranger things have happened. CPC chairwoman Christine West pledged to uphold the rule of law, which is and should be sacrosanct. And yet it is not inappropriate to challenge what the rule of law means when, as currently interpreted, it disenfranchises citizens, as it may here. The framers of the U.S. Constitution purposely created the Senate as a check on the power of the House of Representatives. The resulting difficulty in Congress of passing legislation was considered to be conducive to wisdom, and still is by many.
The same phenomenon operates at lower levels of government. The game is not yet over on Blackstone Boulevard. Maybe a bit of creative disruption is the ticket here. Opponents of the decline and fall of the East Side should think about such a strategy in the case of the Beresford-Nicholson estate, and so should the City Plan Commission.