Actor James Woods sues Rhode Island town over his neighbor building a house next door

EXETER – Oscar-nominated actor James Woods, known for his Family Guy cameos and ultra-conservative political views, is taking up a new cause: He is challenging his neighbor’s effort to build a home at the edge of Boone Lake.

Woods is a native Rhode Islander who graduated from Pilgrim High School in Warwick. His family has owned property on Boone Lake, not far from the Arcadia Management Area, for decades.

The 75-year-old actor is suing the Exeter Zoning Board in state Superior Court over its approval of a variance that would clear the way for his neighbor, Harry Hawker III, to build a two-bedroom home on undeveloped waterfront land.

The land has served the Hawker family as an access point to the picturesque lake and features a dock and firepit.

The view of Boone Lake in Exeter from a home on East Shore Drive, showing homes on West Shore Drive.
The view of Boone Lake in Exeter from a home on East Shore Drive, showing homes on West Shore Drive.

In his filing, Woods argues that the board contravened local zoning rules by granting the variance, and that Hawker failed to show that the proposed project wouldn’t alter the character of the lakeside community. Woods states, too, that Hawker did not prove he had no other “reasonable alternative” to enjoy the .14-acre property at 0 West Shore Drive, which borders the Woods’ family estate.

In asking the court to reverse the zoning approval, Woods faults the Zoning Board for failing to consider the project’s impact on surrounding property values.

His lawyer, Timothy J. Robenhymer, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Why Exeter RI says Harry Hawker III can build his house on Boone Lake

In its response, the town states Hawker originally won approval for a dimensional variance for a two-bedroom house in 2011, but let the approval lapse. The property is a pre-existing, non-conforming lot that was created before the town enacted 2-acre minimum lot size in that residential zone.

Hawker resubmitted an application for the same plans this year, with public hearings before the board on April 14, May 12, June 6 and June 15. The board continued the matter twice to allow measurements to be corrected and once more when Robenhymer got COVID, according to court papers.

The board approved the project on June 15, noting that it was consistent with neighboring properties and that Hawker had sought to minimize the amount of relief needed by centering the home on the property. In granting Hawker relief, the board observed that the plans were in keeping with the surrounding properties and “modest” in size, with a footprint of 950 square feet.

In countering Woods, the board asks that its approval be upheld and Woods’ complaint dismissed, arguing the board’s decision was supported by substantial evidence and based on the correct legal standards.

The board appropriately determined that Hawker’s hardship was due to the lot’s unique characteristics, namely its small size, wrote Steven J. Sypole, on behalf of the board.

What housing on Boone Lake is allowed

“The fact that the neighborhood around Boone Lake is comprised of many similar, small lots – in addition to the fact that single-family homes are a use permitted by right – was adequate to satisfy the … criteria that `the requested variance will not alter the general character of the surrounding area,’” the board said.

The board dismissed Woods’ arguments that Hawker was required to present evidence that the proposal wouldn’t alter the surrounding area. Nor was the board required to consider the possible impact on neighboring property values, Sypole wrote.

“The board obviously could not deny Mr. Hawker’s application based on non-existant requirements that were invented by [Mr. Woods],” the board said.

Hawker, through Sypole, declined to comment on the suit.

Woods is an Emmy and Golden Globe winner, who was twice nominated for an Oscar in the 1990s, first for Oliver Stone's “Salvador” and again for Rob Reiner's  “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Actor James Woods sues RI town over house being built on Lake Boone