Planning Board OKs Heritage District

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The Rome Planning Board moved forward with its recommendations for proposed Ordinance 9468 that would create the Heritage District-Erie Canal special district on Rome-New London Road, voting unanimously in favor of the ordinance at its regular monthly meeting at City Hall on Tuesday.

Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers went before members of the Planning Board, first explaining the history of the first sale of the Erie Canal Village property by the city back in 2002 to Railstar Corporation. At the time, the private owner operated the property as a “living history museum,” while the property had been zoned “preservation.”

“So under zoning limitations — under that zoning — there’s very little you can do by design” because a “preservation zone” designation is “for the protection” of the property, Rogers explained. “That owner had the property until about 2016, and then the village was sold to another owner, and then that owner sold it” to Richard Rios and Cross Roads Redemption Church, of California, “and the other owner inherited the deficiencies in the buildings and a number of other problems.”

Rogers furthered explained that when the city conducted a major zoning update in 2018, it divided the property into three parcels — Rome Sports Hall of Fame; Erie Canal Village; and Fort Bull/Fort Wood Creek. But it was still considered a preservation zone.

“So when” the state “transferred the property and the city sold it, a living history museum was not an allowed use,” said Rogers. “When the city sold Erie Canal Village in 2002, it was designated as park land by the state — we had to get the state to go through a process of alienation” of the property “as park land in order to sell it, and during the SEQR (Site Environmental Quality Review) part of the process, deed restrictions were placed on the property.”

One of those restrictions, Rogers said, was that ECV was still required to operate as a living history museum and if it failed to operate as such for a period of more than 90 days during a tourism season, then ownership of the property could revert back to the city.

In summary, under current zoning restrictions under “preservation zone,” the current owner, Rios, does not have the legal right to operate ECV as a living history museum.

“If the city created a zone for a heritage area, there may be an opportunity to create a subdistrict. We want to make sure we’re protecting our historic assets,” Rogers said. “We want to create a classification that protects the historic nature of the property, but still allows the current owner, or potential future owner, to legally operate a living history museum.”

She said the proposed legislation, “Created a new definition for ‘living history museum,’ then also added some additional uses — like temporary uses that would require a permit from City Codes, like a temporary farmers market or craft sale in the parking lot. Right now they’re very limited” in what they can do.

Meanwhile, Rome Historical Society Board of Trustees President Bobbie O’Brien reiterated to the Planning Board that Rome Historical Society, which owns the Fort Bull/Fort Wood Creek parcel, stated that parcel should not be included in the legislation, because that land needs to be preserved and protected for historical and archaeological purposes.

On behalf of RHS, Rogers said, “RHS does not want to be included because they don’t want future development there” at their site, “Their mission is just to protect the land for those historical purposes.”

Because City Codes cannot enforce deed restrictions and is not involved with State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) restrictions placed on the property for archaeological digging, Rogers said the new zoning was necessary to make sure the current owner can move forward legally with developments at ECV.

“RHS has worked with the city and finally got the artifacts off the property, and those we (the city) had clear title to are gone,” Rogers said. “Then” Rios “will have no reason not to move forward. Right now he can say we tied their hands, because legally they can’t do (develop) it. When we sold the property to begin with, we should have had those things in place.”

Rogers also later explained that once Rios could legally develop the parcel where ECV sits, the property would be subject to codes and fire inspections. The councilor said Rios has already done two projects at the site without archaeological sign-off.

“He’s been digging a giant trench through Clinton’s Ditch and the Fort Bull site is landlocked behind ECV, so access is limited. The owner started to build a replica of a stockade fort and blocked access to the easement” for Fort Bull/Fort Wood Creek, said Rogers. “Without a way for the city to deal with digging restrictions or other restrictions placed on the property, it puts us in a bad spot. We want to put the city in a position where whoever owns it (ECV) can legally operate the village, and hopefully something good will come of it.”

Planning Board Vice-chairman Joseph Calandra said he felt that SHPO should be involved in all potential digging at the property that was more than 18 inches, and that all three parcels be permitted to operate as a living history museum, conservation area and art gallery/museum (and parking lot — Rome Sports Hall of Fame).

Calandra then made a motion to recommend proposed Ordinance 9468 move forward for Common Council approval, on the condition that they strike RHS and Fort Bull/Fort Wood Creek from the legislation, which was unanimously approved by the board.

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