Saturday, 2:15 PM
Vote allows Newburyport clam shack to become a home
(Globe file photo)
An undated photo shows clam shacks along Water Street in Newburyport.
By Globe Staff
The last remaining Newburyport clam shack can be transformed into a single-family home after a 4-1 vote Tuesday night by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The vote granted a special permit for the wood-shingled building overlooking the Merrimack River's Joppa Flats. It came after a year-long campaign by the structure's owner, Mark Roland.
Once the board files its decision with the city clerk, there will be a 20-day period during which the special permit can be appealed. Without an appeal, Roland will be able to apply for a building permit and start construction.
Globe staff writer Tania Deluzuriaga wrote about the clam shack controversy in April:
NEWBURYPORT - To some, Mark Roland is a crusader, trying to preserve the remnants of a bygone era when a man's livelihood could be dug out of the mud at low tide. To others, he is a scofflaw and a gambler who has flouted zoning rules in order to turn the city's last clam shack into a yuppie cottage.
For nearly a year, Roland has been petitioning the Zoning Board in this historic seaside town to grant him the variances that would allow him to make the wood-shingled building perched on a sliver of land overlooking the Merrimack River's Joppa Flats into a single-family house.
"I have one small abode that I'm trying to occupy," he said at a zoning board meeting last week. "That's what I'm asking."
But his plan has been met with resistance from those who say the proposal is illegal. Some have even accused the longtime resident of ruining a historic landmark painted and photographed so often that locals joke it's the North Shore's Motif No. 2, a close cousin to a vacant red fisherman's shack in Rockport dubbed Motif No. 1.
Newburyport residents speaking out against Roland say the Rockport shack is a perfect example of how such a landmark should be treated.
"Motif No. 1 in Rockport is a building that is dormant, admired, and painted," said neighbor Norma Beit, whose home looks out over the clam shack and the surrounding mudflats. "It is a boon to tourist industry, and no one lives in it.
"Hardly can we call Mr. Roland's structure a restoration, for there is no resemblance to the original," she said. "The original did not have a cantilevered deck out over the water."
For centuries, the curve in the road heading from Newburyport to Plum Island was lined with more than a dozen wood-shingled clam shanties that acted as workrooms for families who made their living on the Joppa mudflats. As far back at 1704, the narrow sliver of beach between the road and the river was considered no man's land, and families acquired squatter's rights simply by building a rickety wooden shack on their spot of choice.
"People had the building; when they didn't want it anymore, they sold it to someone for a buck," said Bruce Thurlow, a Byfield carpenter whose family owned Roland's clam shack for three generations.
Diggers would row out to the mud flats in dories just before low tide and collect clams until the water flowed back in. Workers would then shuck baskets of clams outside their shanties alongside the trolley tracks that led out to the beach.
"Clams were poor man's food," Thurlow said. "The people were uneducated, and the language was colorful. It was a wonderful place to grow up."
Things changed when pollution in the Merrimack River closed Joppa Flats to clamming. Over the years, the shanties were torn down, vandalized, and abandoned to the elements until the Thurlows' row, once three conjoined buildings, was the only one remaining.
Roland moved in across the street from the buildings in 1984, restoring his circa-1700s saltbox house and raising two children there. When Thurlow's uncle Nestor decided to sell the shack in 1994, he offered it to Roland for $24,000.
From the beginning, Roland wanted to make the shanty a home. He set to work stabilizing the structure, which was listing into the river. Over the next 14 years, he put his children through college, was divorced, and sold his house. He would work on the shack when he had the time and the money, replacing the windows with insulated ones, putting on a new roof, and installing two wood stoves for heating, spending $125,000 in the process. The interior walls, once painted marine blue and off-white, were lined in honey-colored beadboard. The city's Historical Commission was so impressed they gave him a special citation in 1997.
"I kept the integrity of everything," Roland said.
There's no mistaking the structure's roots. The drains in the cement floors have been left intact, and a sign reading "Clams Native Steamers" that a customer once traded Thurlow's father for some clams is tacked onto what would be a living room wall. Roland has even signed a deed restriction, which prevents him from altering the external appearance of the building.
"More than anything, this is about heritage and preserving it," Roland said, comparing his project to the many mill buildings that have been converted into condominiums. "It's recycling."
But it is also about making it into a legal residence. The 948-square-foot structure has most of the trappings of a modern house, minus the cooking stove and working shower that would certify it as such in the eyes of the law. Roland sleeps there when he is not traveling for his job as a sales manager at a dinnerware and home decor company. He showers at a local health club and eats at restaurants.
Roland's supporters say they fear what will happen to a piece of history if his request isn't approved.
"I think this is a fantastic way for this building to remain preserved and part of Newburyport's fabric," said John Morris, who lives down the street from the shack and grew up buying clams there. "I can only imagine the building being abandoned, eventually falling away or torn down. It would be a shame, and it would be a shame on us. ... What he's doing is really to the benefit of all of us."
But just as Roland and his supporters are passionate about his vision, there are those who are just as passionate about ensuring that it never comes to fruition. Opponents have cited zoning rules and safety concerns, saying that Roland's lot is too small and too close to the road. Some even questioned whether Roland actually owns the land the structure is built on, since it was built with squatter's rights and there's no official title to it.
"Mr. Roland took a big risk, hoping this board would feel sorry for the money he has spent and give him a green light," Beit told members of the city's zoning board last week. "I feel sorry for the money he's spent. ... But this board should not be held hostage to Mr. Roland's gamble."
Last month, the Zoning Board denied Roland's request by a vote of 3 to 2, after months of debate and continuances. But public notice and filing discrepancies allowed the matter to be brought up again earlier this week, and after nearly three hours of discussion, the issue was postponed until June.
In the meantime, both sides will continue to garner support for their cause, and Roland will continue to use the former shanty, now valued at $361,000, as a de facto home.
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