The Block Island Times

Air conditioning becoming more common for island hotels

By Lars Trodson | Jun 23, 2013

Hotel owners and innkeepers on Block Island will tell you that whether or not they have air conditioning is one of the first questions asked by someone looking to rent a room on Block Island.

For many years, the answer was no, air conditioning was not readily available, but that is beginning to change. At least two island hotels, The Darius Inn and the Spring House Hotel, have recently installed air conditioning units. Other establishments, such as the Bellevue House, according to Building Inspector Marc Tillson, have had it for some time.

For an island that experiences rolling brownouts in the summer, one question arose: Can the Block Island Power Company supply enough energy for these industrial-strength cooling units.

Cliff McGinnes, co-owner of the Block Island Power Co., said that they had put in “regulators” that would monitor the demand for energy. “So if we’re not up to capacity, we’ll fix it,” he said.

Another town entity, the Historic District Commission, has been grappling with new applications by innkeepers seeking to place air compressors on buildings that are located in the town’s historic district.

The issue arose this past week when one of the owners of the Darius Inn, Christina Zendt, sought approval for the “installation of a mini-split air conditioning [unit] and heat pumps.” The Darius Inn is located on Ocean Avenue in the historic district. The application was for three compressor units, two at ground level and one on the roof.

HDC Chair Bill Penn, when considering the application, expressed his displeasure with the Darius Inn application at the outset because the units have already been installed. But he noted that, with a recent application for condenser units submitted by the owner of the Spring House Hotel, the HDC needed some guidance on how to proceed with these applications.

Guidance came from the R.I. Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission, which is the oversight body for the Block Island HDC. Penn said the group was seeking information about how the HDC can decide whether these new air conditioning units can conform to the guidelines that oversee new construction in the historic district, and received the following reply:

“When we review the location of a condenser, we try to keep them away from the front and public sides of a building. They are best located on a back or secondary elevation, and should be screened with plantings or fencing whenever possible,” wrote Virginia Hesse from the Preservation Commission. “If the building is three stories or higher, and the equipment can be mounted on the roof without being seen, then that can be a successful solution. It is rarely acceptable to put equipment on two story or lower buildings if it can’t be easily screened.”

The email also references guidelines set forth by the National Park Service: “Don’t place condensors, solar panels, chimney stacks, vents or other equipment on visible portions of roofs or at significant locations on the site.”

After some discussion, the HDC approved the two condensors on the ground floor, which are screened by lattice work, but asked Zendt to come back with a plan for appropriate screening for the unit located on the roof. She said she would, and also apologized for installing the condensors prior to her meeting with the HDC.

Penn noted that another recent applicant for air conditioning units in the historic district came from Frank DiBiase, owner of The Spring House Hotel.

DiBiase told The Block Island Times that the number one question he receives from customers is whether his rooms have air conditioning, so he installed 22 units. “People want air conditioning,” he said. “Tourism is the number one asset of this community and I have to compete with the Newports of the world. I’m trying to accommodate this need.”

DiBiase said that his marketing now mentions the new cooling units: “The oldest and largest is now the coolest.”

According to Penn, the Spring House Hotel “made one application for 14 units on the ground that are screened but there has not been an application made for the ones on the side of the building or on the roof. They installed them without HDC approval or a building permit.”

Building inspector Marc Tillson said that the discussion of air conditioning units in the historic district centers on “retrofits” — or the mini splits — which he described as small air conditioning condensors. He called the units “extremely quiet” and said they caused “little visual damage” to their surroundings.

Tillson also said that the installation of these units was the direct result of business owners responding to the needs of visitors to the island. He said other inns, such as The Bellevue House, had also installed air conditioning units.

“They are listening to their guests and patrons,” said Tillson.

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