PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Neighbors of The Breakers estate in Newport are suing to block a new welcome center that's planned for the site of the mansion, built in the Gilded Age by the Vanderbilts, then one of the nation's most prominent and wealthy families.
The neighborhood association filed the lawsuit Friday in Newport Superior Court against the Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns several mansions in this seaside tourist town, operating them as museums.
The 70-room Breakers, a national historic landmark, is its crown jewel and draws 400,000 visitors annually. The group wants to build the center on the 13-acre grounds of the mansion to provide visitors with services, including ticketing, accessible restrooms and prepared sandwiches.
The neighbors group argues in its lawsuit that the plan violates a number of provisions of the city zoning ordinance, including because it is in a residential neighborhood and a museum and because it would house what the group says is a restaurant. Lawyer Daniel Prentiss argues the zoning rules don't allow that use.
A spokeswoman for the Preservation Society disagreed in a written statement.
"The Preservation Society believes the lawsuit is completely without merit, and we will vigorously defend against it," society spokeswoman Andrea Carneiro said. "In the meantime, we are moving forward."
The dispute over the welcome center has grown rancorous since the Preservation Society publicly announced the project last year.
The neighbors group and members of the Vanderbilt family, including designer Gloria Vanderbilt, have argued against building the center on the estate's grounds, with several arguing a better location would be directly across the street in a parking lot.
The society says it has explored the alternatives, but none of them are feasible. Building it across the street would take up too many parking spaces and would be too far away from the house, the group has said. It has also argued that the food service planned for the center doesn't constitute a restaurant because they plan to serve only food that's prepared somewhere else.
Many of the state's influential economic development and tourism officials have lined up in favor of the project.
The National Park Service also weighed in, saying in a letter it was concerned the plan could damage the national historic landmark and asking the group to reconsider. But a few days later, it retracted the letter and apologized for sending it on the eve of a critical vote by the city's zoning board in January.
The board ultimately gave the project the go-ahead, overturning a decision by the Historic District Commission that found the project was incompatible with local historic standards.
Robert Beaver, who lives near The Breakers and is a member of the neighbors group, said on Monday that the neighbors also plan a separate lawsuit to appeal that zoning board decision.