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Debate in Newburyport over proposed historic district

A sidewalk in Newburyport offers a view of the 18th-century legacy that led to High Street’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. A sidewalk in Newburyport offers a view of the 18th-century legacy that led to High Street’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)
By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / February 9, 2012
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The Newburyport City Council this spring is expected to weigh a proposal that would create a local historic district commission charged with protecting the architectural fabric of the seaport’s downtown commercial area and High Street, the principal gateway to the city and the cornerstone of its National Register Historic District.

The proposal has reignited a decades-old dispute between those who believe a local historic district is needed to guide future development and protect Newburyport’s rich heritage, and homeowners who view the proposed commission as an assault on their property rights.

“I grew up here and I can tell you 40 years ago, Newburyport looked like a bomb had hit it,’’ said City Councilor at Large Richard Sullivan Jr., a vocal critic of the proposal. “Many homes were in bad shape, but over the years, people restored them. We didn’t need a historic district to do that, and I don’t think we need one now. The masses I’ve been speaking to are dead set against it.’’

Debate about the creation of the local historic district began to intensify last fall. At public meetings on the proposed ordinance, critics said there is no need for “another layer of government,’’ while supporters spoke of mounting development pressures, and “remuddling’’ projects that threaten the handsome structures that define this historic seaport. The arguments echoed sentiments expressed some 40 years ago, when a similar measure was considered by the council and went down to defeat.

Still, proponents remain optimistic.

“There is a totally different kind of development pressure today than there was in the 1970s,’’ said Sarah White, chairwoman of the city’s Local Historic District Study Committee, noting that “many property owners on High Street have been approached because they have deep lots that could support another structure. For years, we’ve been relying on luck and the largesse of a lot of people who don’t want to sell to developers. The question is, how much longer do we want to rely on luck?’’

Residents are expressing their opinions on their vehicles and in cyberspace. Dueling bumper stickers and online petitions are gaining momentum.

As of Jan. 30, 19 people had signed a petition opposing the creation of a local historic district commission, saying it would stifle “architectural innovation and diversity.’’

Meanwhile, 196 individuals had added their names to a petition in support of the district. “It is naïve to hope that all individual property owners will respect the historical significance of their buildings,’’ wrote one petition supporter, Lois McNulty, who stated the local historic district “will benefit all.’’

Newburyport is widely considered one of the most architecturally rich areas of the country. High Street, for example, includes many Federal-style homes that were built between 1778 and 1818, at the height of New England’s maritime culture, as well as a number of homes that represent a greater variety of architectural styles, from bungalows to Colonials and Greek Revivals.

Named an endangered resource by Preservation Massachusetts, High Street has evolved from a country road to a socially prominent roadway of national renown. It is home to the Caleb Cushing House, the city’s only National Historic Landmark, and the Essex Superior Court building, which was designed by celebrated architect Charles Bulfinch and dates to 1805.

The downtown is also noteworthy for its architecture. After a devastating fire in 1811 destroyed much of the area, the city rebuilt its commercial center. The historic brick buildings went on to survive the threat of demolition in the 1970s during an era of federal urban renewal programs.

“It is a remarkable tribute, whether by circumstance, civic pride, luck, or a combination of all three, that by the 21st century such an enormous stock of architectural inventory still remains in this city, most of a uniformly high quality,’’ author and historian James C. Roy wrote in a short history of Newburyport that he compiled for the study committee.

Local historic districts offer the strongest form of protection for structures deemed worthy of preservation, giving a locally appointed commission the authority to review proposed changes to exterior architectural features visible from a public way. Under state law, such districts can be created by local ordinance, but require two-thirds majority approval by the municipality’s city council or town meeting.

The first local historic districts to be established in Massachusetts were on Nantucket and in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in 1955. Since then, cities and towns have established more than 220 local historic districts, including ones in Beverly, Haverhill, Melrose, and Rowley.

Newburyport has one local historic district, which was established in October 2007 to protect several properties along Fruit Street, including the Caleb Cushing House at Fruit and High streets. A study to determine whether a more expansive district should be established was launched as local leaders considered the Fruit Street Historic District proposal; then-Mayor John F. Moak created the Local Historic District Study Committee in July 2007.

The five-member panel was charged with exploring the potential for creating a local district within the National Register’s Newburyport Historic District, an area that encompasses about 2,500 properties. After surveying the national district, White said, the study committee made “strategic decisions about which areas were most in need of protection and most open to the idea.’’

If approved, the proposed local historic district would protect the appearance of the 2.48-mile High Street, as well as the exterior facades of 794 properties on the city’s signature street and in the commercial downtown between Federal and Winter streets. A commission, consisting of five members and two alternates, would be appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council to oversee the district.

Under the draft ordinance, the commission “should include’’ at least two property owners from within the district, and nominees from the Newburyport Preservation Trust, the Historical Society of Old Newbury, the Greater Newburyport Board of Realtors, the Newburyport Chamber of Commerce, and the American Institute of Architects. Property owners would be required to seek review from the commission to change any aspect of the exterior visible from a public street, park, or the water. They would not have to seek review for landscaping, storm windows, screens, air conditioners, or terraces, walks, or driveways, provided they are at grade level.

“I just think it’s too much,’’ said Lyndi Lanphear, a High Street homeowner and member of a newly formed opposition group, called Say No to LHD. “It would be very invasive, and take away our personal property rights.’’

Lanphear said she believes the commission would place undue hardship on local property owners, making updates costly and cumbersome. She also expressed concern that the commission would impose stiff penalties for noncompliance, and try to expand its powers over time, noting that “under the draft, the Local Historic District Commission would have control over structures that are more than 75 years old, so every year, more buildings would fall under the commission’s purview.’’

White said the study committee is working to address the concerns of those opposed to the local historic district, and will be modifying language in the draft ordinance before the panel’s final report reaches the City Council.

Rather than having authority over buildings that are more than 75 years old, the commission would likely only review proposed alterations to buildings constructed before 1930, White said. In addition, the study committee plans to eliminate language requiring review of roofing materials, and add a residency requirement mandating that all members of the commission live in Newburyport.

White stressed that the levying of fines would be “rare, an absolute last resort,’’ and was quick to point out that if the commission is established, it would not be able to expand the district’s boundaries on a whim; a study committee would have to examine the issue, and any proposed change would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the City Council. Likewise, if the commission wanted to extend its powers to include purview over new items, such as paint colors or landscaping, such a change would have to be approved by at least eight of the City Council’s 11 members, White said, to meet the two-thirds requirement.

The Local Historic District Study Committee is expected to submit its final report and draft of the proposed ordinance to the City Council this spring.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.

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