To the residents of the City of Newport:
It has been a pleasure and a privilege for me to serve as a volunteer on the Historic District Commission (HDC) these past 7 years, 5 of which I served as Chairwoman and the last 2 as Vice-Chair. I have had the honor of volunteering with the most incredible public servants whom I now call friends. This time has been enormously rewarding and fulfilling for me, but sadly, also eye-opening and sometimes frustrating.
Citing chapter 17.80 Historic District Zoning: Purpose. “The purpose of historic district zoning in the City of Newport is to protect our historic assets and to guide new growth in ways that enrich and maintain Newport’s sense of place and authentic character, for now, and for future generations.” The commission is devoted to this purpose. Now that my service on the HDC has ended I feel it is time for me to point out instances where the work of the commission has been thwarted. The following is a narrative of events:
Starting in early 2018 I began to notice work being done on many important historic contributing buildings throughout the City that had not received HDC approval, even though building permits were stamped ‘approved by HDC’. These significant alterations to historic buildings were inappropriate and things the HDC would not have approved. I brought this to the attention of the Zoning Officer on more than one occasion to no avail; in fact intimidation tactics were used against me. In June 2018 the then Vice-Chair and I were so alarmed by this we requested a meeting with the City Manager to share our concerns as we worried there could be legal ramifications for the City. At first, he seemed unconcerned but did eventually say he would “look into it”. At this time I also contacted my ward councilor. She assured me she would speak with the City Manager and I believe she did. Nothing changed, in fact unauthorized work only got worse. Then, in March of 2019, came the illegal demolition of 46 Church Street, an 18th-century house in the heart of Historic Hill. For me this was the final straw. Building permits posted said it was approved by the HDC, however I can assure you it absolutely was not. I requested and received the stenographer’s transcripts from every meeting regarding this application and there was no HDC approval for a total demolition of this house. I also telephoned the Rhode Island Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission and spoke directly with the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO). He had already been informed of this demolition and was clearly baffled by it. It was he who said it was an illegal demolition. At this point I wrote up a timeline of events and sent it to the City Manager, City Solicitor, and the entire City Council. Shortly after this, a confidential memo sent from the solicitors office to the City Council stated among other things that the Chair of the HDC was ‘fanning the flames’. If telling the truth is considered ‘fanning the flames’, then the culture in City Hall does not represent the public interest.
I then requested through the zoning office to review the record of this application. Upon reviewing the file I could not help but notice that it had been tampered with. Some documents and photos were removed and other documents were added. I know this for a certainty as I had kept the original application’s file and still retain it.
On April 4th 2019 I sent a letter to then Mayor Jamie Bova stating that as Chair of the HDC I felt it was my responsibility to make the City Council aware of these happenings. The Mayor contacted me personally and I met with her a couple of days later. I detailed several examples of questionable activities and she was obviously concerned. The point is, the City Manager, the City Solicitor and the entire City Council knew about these gross irregularities because I wrote and told them. I have no idea what happened behind the scenes, all I know is nothing changed.
In May 2019 I engaged my own personal attorney and shared the documents and notes I had been keeping for over 2 years. He was also alarmed and agreed to assist me in taking this to the next level. (Please know that before graduating from architectural and design school I was an ICU nurse and was trained in taking contemporaneous notes).
As the great John Lewis once said “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation. You have to say something; you have to do something”. In June 2019 I reported the City of Newport to the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office. The Assistant Attorney General (whom I had been in contact with) asked that I send on the documents and information I had kept. He also said that I was a whistle blower, but there were laws to protect me. I do not know what happened in Providence, but surely these documents are part of an official record.
There is a lot of money coming into Newport right now. This brings with it new construction as well as requests for alterations to contributing buildings. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the HDC and all boards and commissions be allowed to perform their duties as outlined in the ordinance with the full backing and support of City Hall.
The Newport community recognized the value of its historic assets and created the laws that govern preservation at the local level. Furthermore, the community understands that our cultural and economic livelihoods depend on stewardship of these valuable resources. To minimize or disregard these laws and processes for a select few is contrary to the public will and interest.
I would urge all Newport residents who are concerned about the above facts to speak out and demand more transparency from our City government. The citizens of Newport and all who love our beautiful City deserve nothing less.
Diana Sylvaria Szapary