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Welcome centre at historic Vanderbilt mansion approved by zoning officials in Newport

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NEWPORT, R.I. - A proposal to build a welcome centre on the grounds of The Breakers, a Gilded Age mansion once home to Cornelius Vanderbilt, cleared a critical hurdle on Monday.

In a 4-1 vote, members of Newport's Zoning Board of Review overturned an earlier decision that had found the project incompatible with local historic standards.

The Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns the national historic landmark, had been appealing an earlier decision by the city's Historic District Commission, arguing that numerous procedural errors had been made.

The zoning board agreed.

The $4.2 million project, which was unveiled last spring, had become the source of bitter feelings in this storied resort town.

"I think everything in Newport is complicated," said Trudy Coxe, executive director of the Preservation Society. "People are very resistant to change. But that's just Newport."

The non-profit group says the building is necessary to offer the mansion's 400,000 annual visitors better restrooms, ticketing and snacks.

Opponents had argued the welcome centre should be built across the street in a parking lot so the architectural heritage of the 13-acre estate is not irreparably damaged. The Preservation Society maintained that plan was not workable because it would take up too many parking spaces and be too far from the house.

The National Park Service in a letter last week expressed concerns that the plan constitutes a significant change that could damage the national historic landmark and asked the Preservation Society to reconsider. But on Monday, the park service retracted the letter. It said that while it had concerns about the project, it hopes to work in partnership with the group. It also clarified that it has no role in the local zoning process.

Coxe credited Rhode Island Democratic U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, as well as U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline, also a Democrat, for the letter's retraction.

"At some point down the road, this will all smooth out," added Donald O. Ross, the Preservation Society's board chair.

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