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Preservation Advocacy: More important than ever

One of the important components of NPT's mission, along with preservation education and providing owners of historic homes with knowledgeable guidance, is preservation advocacy. In recent years in Newburyport, the alteration or destruction of historic properties to maximize profit has become more attractive to entrepreneurs.  As a result, for those who value the architecture, ambiance, and authenticity of this city, active participation in preservation decision-making is more important than ever. We welcome your voice.

On this page you may find “Calls to Action" for preservation advocacy, but it is also wise to check the City of Newburyport website (Planning Dept.) for up-to-date municipal meeting schedules and agendas. (It's better than camping out on the steps of City Hall.)

For up-to-date information on the most immediate preservation issues (like when members need to stand in front of bulldozers or storm City Hall), stay up-to-date by visiting the Newburyport Preservation Trust at Facebook: www.facebook.com/newburyportpreservationtrust.


Preservation Advocacy: Some relatively recent foundational background

Several years ago, the Newburyport Preservation Trust supported the community's 21st-century citizen-led campaign for the establishment of a local historic district in Newburyport. Despite broad citizen support for a “light version” of an LHD, the campaign proved divisive, misinformation prevailed, and ultimately in early 2013, the initiative fell short of the required supermajority approval in the City Council chambers. Despite the outcome, analysis of successful LHDs throughout the U.S. suggests that a locally-crafted LHD affords the best protections for historic architecture and neighborhood ambiance. (For comprehensive information about the local historic district concept, presented in a reasoned, non-alarmist fashion, consult the several books on the subject by William E. Schmickle: (1) The Politics of Historic Districts: A Primer for Grassroots Preservation (2006); Preservation Politics: Keeping Historic Districts Vital (2006); and The Historic District Action Guide (2018).

In the fall 2013 municipal elections, Newburyport citizens elected several new pro-preservation candidates to the City Council, which tipped the balance. Almost immediately one newly-elected councilor began drafting --- and gaining support for --- two pro-preservation zoning ordinances. In April 2014 the Newburyport City Council, in unanimous votes, passed the Demolition Control Overlay District (DCOD) ordinance and the Downtown Overlay District (DOD) ordinance. Ever since the new ordinances took effect, the Zoning Board of Appeals, developers, property owners, their lawyers, and rank-and-file pro-preservation citizens have worked arduously through numerous lengthy Zoning Board hearings to navigate the new permitting landscape as it relates to historic structures. Preservation advocates plea for our zoning ordinances to be applied fairly and consistently, while developers and their lawyers argue for their latest loophole. Therefore despite the city’s pro-preservation zoning laws, advocacy efforts continue.

Local Historic District Advocacy: Still On-Board

The trolley is still full of supporters, but has not yet reached its destination.The NPT continues to support the ideal of a Local Historic District in Newburyport as a proven way to ensure preservation of individual neighborhood streetscapes as well as our more high-profile architectural gems. Newburyport's distinctive, authentic architectural and historical character draws people here to live, work, and play, and sustains the city’s economic vitality. The information here remains as a source about the procedure to establish an LHD, and as an overview of the 2007-2012 work by Newburyport's appointed Local Historic District Study Committee.

What is a Local Historic District?A Local Historic District is a specifically-designated area deemed historically or architecturally significant that is protected by ordinance from changes that would negatively impact that area's historic character. In Massachusetts, all LHD ordinances and restrictions within are not the same, since they are crafted by local residents with local conditions in mind, but still according to state procedure. An LHD ordinance complements local zoning laws to protect distinctive architectural and streetscape features that contribute to city/town/neighborhood character.

(Local Historic Districts are distinct from federal historic districts, which are placed on the National Register of Historic Places under the purview of the National Park Service. In Newburyport, its National Register Historic District, established in 1984, is the largest in Massachusetts, extending from Joppa in the South End to Atkinson Common in the North End, and encompassing over 2900 structures. A federal historic district, however, is protected only from demolition from federally contracted projects.)

In Massachusetts, once an LHD is established, the ordinance is administered by an appointed committee of local residents that reviews applications for certain changes to assure they will not adversely impact a district's historical character.

The creation of an LHD is a proven approach to preservation for cities, towns, and neighborhoods that rely on their historical character to maintain a vibrant economy and uphold property values. There are over 2300 Local Historic Districts in the United States, with 220 of them in Massachusetts. Newburyport has one, the Fruit Street Historic District, established in 2007.

For more general background on Local Historic Districts, visit the web site maintained by the National Park Service, Working on the Past in Local Historic Districts.This site was prepared expressly for property owners, district commissioners, architects, and developers.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission explains the difference between a National Register District and a Local Historic District in its brochure, There's a Difference: Understanding National Register Districts and Local Historic Districts.

Why Newburyport needs an LHDNewburyport residents cherish their neighborhoods, and homeowners in every corner of the city realize that our architectural riches in the downtown area and along High Street draw people to Newburyport --- a draw that in large part sustains our local economy. Yet our city continues to lose historic properties to tear-downs, oversized additions, or incompatible new construction. It happens despite existing zoning laws, as the potential for profit through infill or tear-down justifies even the most costly appeals of zoning board denials. Newburyport needs an LHD for the long-term protection of our greatest assets: our remaining stock of significant period architecture ... and the distinctive neighborhoods we love. The LHD proposed in 2012 encompassed 794 buildings in the downtown from Federal Street to Winter Street, plus the entire length of High Street.

Supporters of Local Historic Districts cite reasons ranging from the desire to preserve material evidence of venerable structures and historic authenticity, to the desire to preserve the ephemeral and unquantifiable soul, essence, or ambiance of our streetscapes. Supporters often cite admiration for the craftsmanship of the past, preference for wood over plastic, and love of a certain period style as reasons for supporting an LHD.

But while intrinsic historic value, aesthetic preference, and undefinable atmosphere are of purely subjective value to some, it should be abundantly clear to all that the long-term future stability of Newburyport's economy --- in addition to the maintenance of its character and quality of life --- depends on the attentive preservation of its notable stock of early American domestic architecture. The time for an LHD in Newburyport is long overdue.

For a brief overview of how Newburyport arrived at its present state of preservation, see the Architecture & History page.

How is a Local Historic District accomplished?In Massachusetts, strict guidelines are in place for the step-by-step process of establishing a Local Historic District. In Newburyport in 2007, in response to broad citizen interest, then-Mayor John Moak appointed a volunteer Historic District Study Committee of city residents to look into the establishment of an LHD in Newburyport according to the state guidelines. City records indicate the committee held more than 60 posted public meetings in a four-year period. In addition to study of the subject, this committee conducted a citywide survey of property owners to ascertain opinions about an LHD. The results, compiled and analyzed in 2008, were used to guide the crafting of an ordinance that would be a suitable fit for Newburyport. The resulting proposed ordinance incorporated minimally restrictive guidelines that applied only to exterior alterations visible from a public way. Exempt from review were paint color, landscaping, and alterations to structures built after 1930.

The required preliminary report was filed with the Massachusetts Historical Commission in August 2011. This report included the draft ordinance (with implementation details), the guidelines, and district map. In September and October 2011, two public informational meetings were held, one in the South End, and one in the North End. In March 2012, two more informational meetings on successive weeks at Newburyport City Hall addressed questions from the public about the proposed LHD. In response to the public input, the LHD Study Committee reduced the size of the district before presenting the ordinance in its final form, first to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and then to the Newburyport City Council. Public hearings followed, with citizens heard on both sides of the issue. Ultimately, in late 2012, the proposed ordinance --- even in its extremely modified form --- did not achieve the required super-majority vote (8 of 11 councilors) for adoption.

For comprehensive information about procedure, read Establishing Local Historic Districts (2021), a 64-page guide prepared by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

LHD Advocacy: What YOU can doIf preservation of our authentic architectural assets is important to you, it's time to speak up for Newburyport.At present the procedure for establishing an LHD in Massachusetts requires a super-majority vote of the city’s legislative body. If sometime in the future there is an LHD study and proposal in Newburyport, that means an LHD would require 8 of 11 City Councilors to vote in favor. Advocates both pro and con can huff-and-puff at public meetings, but ultimately it is the City Council vote that counts. By extension, then, expressing your opinion to your ward and at-large councilors is important. By further extension, choosing your City Councilors at the ballot box is vitally important.

Sign petitions.When the opportunity arises, make sure to sign hard-copy paper petitions and online petitions in support of preservation initiatives.

Attend informational forums and official public meetings.If you support the preservation of the city's historic character, attend relevant meetings so you will be as informed as possible. It is important that reasoned voices are heard above the noisy chatter of misinformation.

Write letters to the editor of local publications.Public discussion can get spirited, but if you are in favor of preservation initiatives and ordinances with real teeth, add your voice to the chorus.

Talk to your neighbors.Chances are, your neighbors appreciate your neighborhood's distinctive ambiance just like you do, but perhaps they are new in town or have not kept up on preservation issues. Let them know about public meetings and informational resources like this web site.

LHD opposition

There are over 2300 LHDs in the U.S.,and over 200 in Massachusetts, so Newburyport is not the first place that has heard all the predictable opposing arguments. Some of the arguments against the LHD are knee-jerk reactions based on misinformation or misconception, while some arguments are based on valid reservations.

Property rights.The most common reflexive opposition invokes the presumed unassailable sanctity of "property rights." There are those who believe property rights are more important than anything else. But in our democratic form of self-government, property rights have long been limited by legitimate concern for protecting the rights of others and the public interest.

"We've done fine without an LHD." Another common counter-argument is "We've done fine for years. We've got zoning. We don't need an LHD." Please refer to the Newburyport Architecture & History page for a summary of how the city arrived at its present state of preservation. Until the 1970s, most of the oldest homes in our modest residential neighborhoods survived by happy accident, not by proactive preservation. Economically, Newburyport was certainly not "doing fine" at mid-20th century. The very reclamation of neglected, distressed, or dilapidated properties in the 1970s-80s --- many achieved by the inspired sweat-equity of ordinary folks (and many of these homes ironically outside the LHD proposed in 2012) --- raised property values and consequently attracted investors for whom architectural integrity was far below profit on the priority list. Since that time our stock of authentic architecture has dwindled, through tear-downs, ill-conceived "restorations," and insensitive additions. Neighborhood streetscapes have been permanently altered by lot-crowding and infill as developers seek maximum return. All this has occurred in spite of zoning laws, and has been to the detriment of the historic character upon which the Newburyport renaissance was based. At the time of the 2007-2012 LHD initiative, the 1971 HUD restrictions that protected the downtown renewal area had recently expired, and Newburyport was not “doing fine” without an LHD. What remained of Newburyport’s authenticity was being hauled away in dumpster loads.

The LHD campaign fell short … but led directly to our current pro-preservation zoning laws.In the very next municipal election, Newburyport voters made a clear statement at the ballot box. Every one of the “Say No to Historic Preservation” candidates for mayor and city council was defeated. Within a few months, in April 2014, the newly-seated City Council passed two robust pro-preservation zoning ordinances unanimously (1) the Demolition Control Overlay District (DCOD) ordinance, and (2) the Downtown Overlay District (DOD) ordinance. Nevertheless, since then, the city’s Historical Commission, Planning Board, and Zoning Board of Appeals must still wrangle with well-financed developers and their lawyers. Therefore, for those who value what’s left of Newburyport’s authenticity, preservation advocacy continues.