GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 23, 2013

Why Did My Newspaper Do This? Page 1 attention for a house project

Why Did My Newspaper Do That?
Ray Lamont

---- — So, the Roma family in Rockport acquired a piece of property adjacent to the home they already own, and is planning to tear down the house and build a new one on the site.

On the surface, that doesn’t sound too earth-shattering, does it? Yet that property transaction and very basic building plan played out as a Page 1 story in the Thursday’s Times.

Why? For starters, Ronald Roma is one of Rockport’s better-known property owners, for a variety of reasons. The owner of the so-called Brick House, which some neighbors and other residents love to hate on Granite Street, both Roma and the house itself made headlines — and spotlighted a concern in Rockport’s local bylaws — when he and a piloting colleague lowered a helicopter to within several feet of the house as if to test its viability for a potential helipad. And town officials scrambled to find a bylaw that could legally prevent any plans for one going forward.

But does that make the Romas’ latest acquisition and building plans front-page news? Is it fair to focus on their building proposals? Shouldn’t we then do similar stories on potentially anyone who buys a house and looks to tear down what’s there in favor of putting up something better?

Why did this new home project merit this kind of attention? Why, in other words, would your community’s newspaper do that?

Because in Rockport, especially, the Romas’ latest home project comes within the context of several news stories, given all that’s gone before it.

For one thing, the Romas’ proposal to tear down a building constructed in 1905 — the deed isn’t clear whether that refers to the house, a garage or a shed on the property, though it’s logical to suspect the house came before the other two — was precisely the concept targeted by a proposed demolition delay bylaw that town residents’ shot down last year.

For another, the Romas’ previous tearing down of a circa 1809 home to build the brick house that stands today at 129 Granite St. sparked a number of conflict-of-interest allegations and wrongful permit allegations on the part of town officials and drew intense public questioning and criticism at the time, and some of that continues to resonate today. The fact is, town zoning administrator Alan Battistelli’s working relationship with Ronald Roma on that house, and the continued presence of Battistelli in his zoning administrator’s role as a local contractor almost inherently invites questions in the community, and — aside from stepping down — there is, fair or not, probably nothing he can do to eliminate that.

Finally, the Romas’ new acquisition and building plans may not simply be a story that stands as Page 1 material on its own, it serves as perhaps the ultimate example of an age-old bone of contention: Precisely what types of control or oversight can or should a city or town have over what a private homeowner can or cannot do with his or her own property?

In many realms, we do try to cover issues and stories with a sense of equality. We try, for example, to give as equal coverage as possible to presentations and special events in all of our schools when we learn of special events. We try to give equal coverage to businesses when they celebrate landmark events or carry out expansion projects. And we don’t, under normal circumstances, give Page 1 attention to news about individual home projects.

But Rockport’s Granite Street case, given the context of local history, shows that not all home projects are created equal, especially when they come with the context of history. That’s why it earned Page 1 story coverage this week.

As always, let me know what you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there a topic you’d like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000, x3432, or at rlamont@gloucesrtertimes.com.