By Tom Shevlin
As far as diminutive goes, Wilbur Street may be in a class of its own. Tucked just off of Eustis Avenue down past Kay Street, it is barely a cul-de-sac.
The street, which has only a few buildings, terminates abruptly in a thatch of woods that runs alongside an historic cemetery before meeting Wilbur Avenue, a slightly larger road with access from Bliss Road, to the north.
At one time, the area was farmland. More recently, it has been the source of some confusion for residents and city officials. Bob Barella lives at number 5 Wilbur St.
Recently, a parcel of land abutting the historic Wilbur Cemetery was sold and eyed for development. It's a decent sized lot compared to others in the vicinity.
Last Friday, Barella awakened to the sound of chainsaws as crews began making a path to access the lot next to his house. Wilbur Street – the portion that appears on paper, but not in function – was being cleared. Phone calls and e-mails ensued. Barella's neighbors rallied, just as they had a few years ago to clear and rehabilitate the often-overlooked historic cemetery.
By Monday morning, city officials were notified, as was the state's Historic Cemetery Commission, which under Rhode Island General Law, is responsible for the oversight of roughly 1,500 registered historic cemeteries throughout the state.
The Wilbur plot is technically Rhode Island Historic Cemetery No. 020. Accordingly, restrictions on development and excavation abound.
As Barella explained in an email, "Many of the grave stones have been knocked over or broken and many are probably not marking the proper graves."
He's also concerned that there may be more unmarked graves in the plot being eyed for development.
"The cemetery is the resting place of many of the Wilbur family, the Ensworth family, the Peckhams and more," Barella said. Most date back to the early-to-mid-1800s, and many can be traced to the old Wilbur Farm.
On Friday morning, a tree was cut down within the bounds of the cemetery, and another within 18 inches of a city right-of-way. That's when Scott Wheeler, the city's tree warden, was called in. According to Wheeler, the property owner informed him that the trees were being removed in order to attain an accurate survey of the property.
If the orange markers delineating the identified property lines are correct, the cleared area of the Wilbur Cemetery may actually exceed the boundaries that the city recognizes on its zoning maps.
Wheeler, however, noted that at least one tree - a chokecherry – was on city land, and therefore required proper permission before being taken down. Though at the time Wheeler acknowledged that he wasn't attuned to state regulations pertaining to historic cemeteries, he's since learned that restrictions do apply.
According to Rhode Island General Law, digging within 25 feet of a documented historic cemetery, which the Wilbur plot is, is generally prohibited without express permission from local authorities.
Specifically, the regulation reads, "No city or town shall permit construction, excavation or other ground disturbing activity within twenty-five feet (25ft) of a recorded historic cemetery except in compliance with the following provisions:
(1) The boundaries of the cemetery are adequately documented and there is no reason to believe additional graves exist outside the recorded cemetery and the proposed construction or excavation activity will not damage or destructively alter the historic cemetery through erosion, flooding, filling, or encroachment; or (2) The proposed construction or excavation activity has been reviewed and approved by the city or town."
It further stipulates that whenever an unmarked cemetery or human skeletal material is inadvertently located during any construction, excavation, or other ground disturbing activity, the local building official shall be immediately notified along with the state medical examiner and, if appropriate, the Rhode Island historic preservation commission.”
Barella is asking that the city engineering department require that the new owner (who could not be reached for comment by press time) conduct an archaeological investigation of the cemetery before any further clearing occurs.
David McLaughlin, of Clean Ocean Access, also lives in the neighborhood.
"This is a tricky piece of land, with the historical cemetery, a paper road, abutting land owners, and input from several departments not limited to engineering, zoning, trees and grounds as well as overarching oversight from the state of Rhode Island," he wrote in an e-mail forwarded to Newport This Week.
"Fortunately, most of the neighbors were home on this humid Friday morning and were able to step through the poison ivy and talk to the crew and take action to preserve the rest of the trees. Hopefully, we can preserve the land as well. We’ve seen 6-foot deer roaming this land and I know at its elevation on this side of the watershed that this land is critical for natural filtration – without green space, runoff just rushes to the ocean full of pollution."
Even though neighbors succeeded in bringing a halt to the tree removal within the cemetery and along the overgrown section of Wilbur Street, it's still unclear what impact their findings will have on the potential for development of the abutting property.
If the uncleared section of Wilbur Street is in fact identified as a viable right of way with no evidence of further grave sites, then the property owner would seem to be well within his rights to proceed with a construction application.
However, without any specific plans on file with the city, it's hard to tell exactly what sort of development is being planned.
According to Zoning Officer Guy Weston, there have been a few small homes built on similar size lots in recent years, including a compact single-family residence at the corner of Warner Street and Kingston Avenue. Although the existence of the historic cemetery would seem to be problematic, some form of development could still take place.