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Historic district plan splits property owners, preservationists

Opponents of a new historic district march in Newburyport’s Yankee Homecoming parade.

Opponents of a new historic district march in Newburyport’s Yankee Homecoming parade.

The Newburyport City Council this fall will decide an issue that has been the subject of impassioned debate in this seaside community for months: Who should be the stewards of the city’s architectural gems, property owners or a historic district commission?

The city solicitor is reviewing a proposed ordinance that would create a local historic district to protect the architectural integrity of 794 properties in the downtown commercial area and on High Street, the principal gateway to the city and the cornerstone of its National Register Historic District.

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The City Council will have the final say on the proposal’s fate. Under state law, the power to approve or deny the creation of a local historic district rests solely in the hands of a city’s highest elected representative body.

Veteran councilors say the proposed ordinance has generated more response from the public than any other in recent memory, inspiring dueling bumper stickers, online petitions, and yard signs.

The large number of placards prompted Mayor Donna Holaday to issue a public appeal to take them down. Most proponents of the proposal complied. Organizers of the Citizens for Historic Newburyport, a group formed to support creating a historic district, said the lawn signs were no longer needed, and they would not aid the City Council’s deliberations.

But opponents steadfastly refused to ditch their placards.

“We kept them up because it’s the only thing we have,” said Lyndi Lanphear, one of the organizers of Say No to LHD, a grass-roots group formed to oppose the ordinance.

A petition in favor of the historic district has been signed by 418 residents while, to date, opponents have garnered 43 signatures in an online petition. Still, Lanphear said she is confident the Say No group has the widespread support needed to persuade the council to defeat the measure. She is quick to point out that the group has been collecting signatures the old-fashioned way as well, with pen and paper; those signatures have yet to be tallied.

The proposed ordinance would create one commission to oversee the existing Fruit Street Local Historic District and the proposed Newburyport Local Historic District. If it is approved by at least eight members of the 11-member City Council, the new commission also would replace the city’s Historical Commission, which has the authority to issue one-year demolition delays for older properties deemed to be historically significant.

During the past several months, the proposal has been a work in progress, tinkered with as the public weighed in at several informational sessions and a public hearing held in June. 

“The goal is not to water down the proposal, as some have suggested, but to modify it to ensure that key aspects of our historic structures are preserved for future generations,” said Sarah White, chairwoman of the Local Historic District Study Committee.

In a letter to local leaders, Jared Eigerman and Stephanie Niketic, spokespersons for Citizens for Historic Newburyport, noted that “the proposed local historic district ordinance addresses a blind spot that zoning cannot: public views of historic resources, and only public views. Under Massachusetts law, LHDs cannot regulate interiors or anything not visible from public streets.”

However, that argument has not swayed opponents, who view the local historic district as an assault on their property rights.

“This new umbrella commission would have complete control over Newburyport, with the power to issue steep fines for noncompliance,” said Lanphear. “It’s the same old pig with new lipstick on. We don’t need more government and more costs. It takes away our personal property rights.”

Local historic districts offer the strongest form of protection for structures deemed worthy of preservation. To date, more than 220 local historic districts have been established in Massachusetts, including in Beverly, Haverhill, Melrose, and Rowley. The Fruit Street Historic District in Newburyport was established in October 2007 to protect several properties along that road, including the Caleb Cushing House. 

In July 2007, as local leaders considered the Fruit Street proposal, then-Mayor John F. Moak created the Local Historic District Study Committee to determine whether a more expansive district should be established. Five years later, the work of that committee is now under a microscope and soon to be debated by the City Council.

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