An ordinance authorizing the amendment of the Rome Code of Ordinances Chapter 80 zoning and related maps to include a new Heritage District-Erie Canal Zone for Erie Canal Village, was tabled during Wednesday’s Common Council meeting held in Council Chambers of City Hall.
Council members — with the exception of First Ward Councilor John M. Sparace and Sixth Ward Councilor Riccardo D. Dursi Jr. who were excused — unanimously tabled the ordinance so that the new zoning code could go before the city Planning Board for consideration, and for public comments to be heard on the proposed zoning change.
Meanwhile, council members unanimously approved a resolution calling for the city clerk to advertise for a public hearing on the new zoning code, to be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8, prior to the regular Common Council meeting.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Bobbie O’Brien of Martin Drive, trustee of Rome Historical Society, provided some history about the property on Rome-New London Road that includes the Erie Canal Village, Fort Bull/Wood Creek and Rome Sports Hall of Fame.
O’Brien expressed she was in favor of creating the special zone but with one important change — to specifically address Erie Canal Village and not include Fort Bull/Fort Wood Creek, as the site was meant for “preservation,” not development. She explained that on Oct. 24, 2001, the state Senate and Assembly enacted the ability of the city to sell the parklands that now comprise the 200-plus acres encompassing the lands owned by Rome Sports Hall of Fame as a sports museum, and for then-owner Rail Star Corporation to continue operating a living history museum, and Rome History Society to protect and preserve historic Fort Bull.
On Oct. 31, 2002, the city and Rail Star entered into an agreement and signed the Deed of Sale for the Olde Erie Canal Village.
“Important to remember is the requirement to continue operating the village as a living history museum as established by the state. As a side note, the state, and later the city, included reversionary cause saying should any properties cease to be used for the stated legislated purposes, the City of Rome could invoke that clause,” O’Brien explained. “Rail Star subsequently sold to Wheel Horse on July 14, 2016, and then sold again on April 3, 2019, to the current owner Cross Roads Redemption Church. The deed of which, throughout various ownerships, included the city stipulation that it ‘remain open to the general public, and in the event said use is discontinued for a period of 90 consecutive days or longer, with the exception of seasonal closure, the title may revert back to the City of Rome.’”
O’Brien further explained that the proposed new zoning district would work around a “two-fold problem,” failure for the ECV site to operate as required since 2014, and the city changing the zone use in 2018. In early 2020, current owner Richard Rios was denied a building permit because of pre-existing conditions that would have allowed Cross Roads Redemption Church to operate the village had expired.
She said the remedy would have been the completion of a Use Variance Application and appearing before the city Zoning Board of Appeals, which never happened. If it had, ZBA could have allowed a use variance enabling the owner to move ahead with remedying building code violations at the site and moving toward reopening ECV, or denying the use variance would have provided an opportunity for the council to create legislation for the new zone back then, O’Brien said.
But within the proposed new zone legislation, O’Brien said two items are of concern. One was the inclusion of the Fort Bull and Fort Wood Creek sites in the legislation, and the other was the reference to an “art gallery,” which would not include a cultural facility such as a library or museum.
“It is the responsibility of the Rome Historical Society, as mandated by the state, to protect and preserve Historic Fort Bull (which is on the National Register of Historic Places). Clearly the owners of the village have failed to live up to their respective deed requirement,” said O’Brien. “Their purview is not preservation of a colonial-era battlefield, which was made eminently clear by the abomination of a so-called fort facade which was attempted to be erected without any city permits or more importantly, bringing in the proper state authorities and archaeological representation as regards to ground disturbance.”
She said, “To date, their actions do not reflect a group or entity that is the least concerned about historic preservation. Therefore, I respectfully request you strike any reference to Fort Bull or Fort Wood Creek in this new zone district. You are creating it specifically for a church to operate Erie Canal Village. There are hundreds of years of canal heritage and multiple canals on that property to more than cover their state and City of Rome-mandated activities.”
The RHS trustee also reiterated that the legislation language should be changed to “cultural facility” rather than “art gallery.”
“Although there is no use definition for museum within this Article, perhaps changing art gallery to cultural facility would be more relevant, and avoid future issues with use allowances,” she said. O’Brien also called for Ordinance 9468, on file at the City Clerk’s Office, to include an Exhibit A as part of the attachments and that it be updated on the city’s website, as referred to in the legislation.
Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers noted how she, along with Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli and Sixth Ward Councilor Riccardo D. Dursi Jr., prepared and “worked for weeks” on the proposed legislation for the zone change and agreed it was an “oversight” not to include “permitted use” in the document, stating she would recommend an amendment later in the meeting.
Rogers explained that when the city owned the property, the district was in a preservation zone. She said when the city operated the ECV, if you were a private owner, you would not be able to create the ECV so when the property was sold, it was left as a preservation district and the city didn’t correct that in 2018, which was contradictory for anyone to have a deed restriction.
“So the creation of the new district rectifies that situation,” said Rogers. “Any owner — Mr. Rios, or if he sold it or donated it at some point — whoever owns it should have the right to operate it as a living history museum. Whether or not Rios does anything or any future owner does anything to make it a tourist facility, remains to be seen. “He (Rios) has a lot of work to do on the buildings there. Shull House has been on the verge of collapsing, and now it has collapsed.”
She said, “I don’t know the last time the Codes Office was there, but I think we need to get to the site and look at the condition of the buildings and see where they are. Not all of them had code-related issues, but the vast majority did, and we need to get there to do another assessment.”
As far as other notes she made during O’Brien’s comments, “Three parcels were included in the original sale” of the property, “Rome Sports Hall of Fame, Fort Bull and Erie Canal Village,” said Rogers. “…We pulled out RHS because they don’t want development” of the property, “their goal is to preserve that land. Rome Sports Hall of Fame does want to be, and asked to be a party in that district. They are in favor of being able to hold a barbecue in the parking lot as permitted temporary uses where they can go get a permit.”
Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli said she welcomed “tweaks” to the language in the legislation.
“Mr. Rios pointed out to us, as well as it was our intent, to get out of the way for anyone who wanted to bring Erie Canal Village back, because that’s what the city would like, and we don’t want to be a barrier to that,” Viscelli said. “I understand the position of wanting to keep Fort Bull separate, as the Sports Hall of Fame wanted to be included.”
Before Ordinance 9468 amending the Rome Code of Ordinances Chapter 80 to include the new Heritage District-Erie Canal came up for a vote, Rogers asked to amend the legislation to “living history use” so that the board was viewing the correct use, which was unanimously approved. The actual ordinance was then unanimously tabled by the council.