Fate of historic Arnold House under tense discussion

Fate of historic Arnold House under tense discussion

SMITHFIELD - The farmhouse with a long past and possibly a short future remained in limbo last week as its owner and the municipal Planning Board sparred over the latest offer to save it.

According to owner Paul Ronci, who has been issued a demolition permit for the 260-year-old Arnold house at 130 Whipple Road, a potential solution is at hand.

But that view seemed overly optimistic after Ronci's April 24 talk with the board.

Ronci says the house can't stay on his 55 acres because it will interfere with his plans to develop $600,000 houses there on lots of two to three acres each.

But, he said, if the Planning Board approves his hoped-for, 10-lot subdivision along the roadfront, he'll donate the historical structure to a private landowner who will move it to a nearby 20-acre farm on Douglas Pike where it would have high public visibility.

As part of the deal, Ronci said, his project would be classified as a conservation development, meaning he would be required to donate 60 percent of the land - about 33 acres - to the town for open space.

Otherwise, Ronci said, he has an offer to sell the house, valued for tax purposes at $93,000, to "a big gas tycoon" who would dismantle it and rebuild it on his property in Pennsylvania.

Ronci and the Planning Board met informally so he could gauge the board's unofficial reaction to his proposal.

Things did not go well.

Board Chairman James Archer said some might consider the proposal more of a threat than an offer, because of the implied loss of what local historians have called a "crown jewel" among the community's historical properties.

"I feel like our arms are being twisted," said board member Catherine Rickert, who added that she was concerned about introducing 10 curb cuts for driveways on pastoral but busy Whipple Road.

Archer asserted that any board action on Ronci's project cannot be tied to the preservation offer because "The house is not relevant to whether the development is in the best interest of the town."

Board members said that before they could make any decisions on Ronci's development he would have to formally apply for approval so members could review precise details of what he has in mind.

The potential local recipient of the house is Carlo Ruggeri, chief executive officer of Alcor Scientific, a maker of medical devices based on Thurber Boulevard in town.

A native of Italy, Ruggeri, who lives in Lincoln, told The Valley Breeze & Observer that he is enamored of Americana and would move the old farmhouse to land he owns about a mile from Ronci's property.

He said the structure would not be used as a residence, but as a "culture club" reflecting the area's farming history, and that he would periodically open it to the public.

He said the property, occupied by his daughter, is also shared by three donkeys and 10 sheep.

Ruggeri said he has no commercial interest in the house, but would be "more than willing" to preserve it if officials reach agreement with Ronci.

"If the town will be better for it, then I'm all for it," he said.

Ronci said he plans a roadside development needing no interior streets, because they would be costly for him to build and would later be an expense to the town after they were accepted into the municipal highway system.

Town Planner Michael Phillips said the core issue is whether the board feels there is merit in eventually approving the plan as a conservation development because of the open space factor.

Ronci said an alternative for him is to develop fewer houses along the road in a conventional development, with him keeping the entire 55 acres. The land is zoned R-80, which requires minimum lot sizes of nearly two acres.

Ronci, who bought the Whipple Road property last year for $501,000 from the estate of Eileen Sullivan, said he has had unsuccessful discussions with other town officials about ways to save the old house.

He said it was not his intention to put pressure on the Planning Board, but that his opportunity to sell the structure to the Pennsylvania man is time-limited.

Of his talk with the board, he said, "I thought it was going to go better."

With no immediate solution in sight, he said, "I have no idea what I'm going to do right now."