The Newburyport City Council has scuttled a sweeping plan to protect the architectural integrity of the seaport’s downtown commercial area and High Street, and instead embraced a proposal to preserve just five properties on the Ridge.
The vote to protect the handful of homes on the stretch of historic mansions that line High Street between State Street and Wills Lane was 9 to 1.
The outcome of Monday’s meeting surprised residents on both sides of the issue who had been expecting the 11-member council to reject the creation of a Local Historic District altogether in favor of exploring increased protections for the downtown area and a stronger demolition delay bylaw.
Several residents who sat through the council’s deliberations walked out shaking their heads after City Clerk Richard B. Jones took the roll call. Up to that point, it was standing room only in the council chambers, with supporters of the measure wearing “Say Yes to LHD” stickers and opponents holding signs featuring LHD covered by a red slash mark, the universal “no” symbol.
“The fact that the City Council was able to take a massive historic district that took [nearly] six years of study and debate and reduce it in two hours down to five properties, it’s just incredible, really,” said Richard Horton, leader of the opposition group, “Say No to LHD,” which argued the proposal infringed on property rights.
Councilor at Large Richard E. Sullivan Jr., a vocal opponent of the Local Historic District, cast the sole dissenting vote. Ward 5 Councilor Brian P. Derrivan was away on business and did not attend the meeting.
“I’m just pleased something was salvaged after five years of study,” Mayor Donna D. Holaday said of the proposal, which initially sought to protect 794 properties in Newburyport, including those on the 2.48-mile High Street — the principal gateway to the city and the cornerstone of its National Register Historic District — and the commercial downtown between Federal and High streets.
“We will continue to work with residents of the city to find ways to protect our history and architecture,” Holaday added.
The proposal to create an expansive Local Historic District sparked impassioned public debate, inspiring dueling bumper stickers, competing online petitions, and a horde of yard signs. Councilor at Large Edward C. Cameron said he “would have been happier with a wider geographic spread, but we’ll take it one step at a time.”
The next step will be a final vote on the pared-down proposal. That vote will likely come when the council reconvenes on Jan. 14. For the measure to be adopted, at least seven councilors must vote in favor. Councilor at Large Kathleen O’Connor Ives is leaving the council Jan. 1 to take a seat in the state Senate; her replacement will not be chosen before local leaders revisit the issue.
The new Local Historic District would encompass five houses — built from the late 1700s to the early 1800s — consisting of eight residences. All of the property owners met with their council representative, Ward 2 Councilor Gregory D. Earls, and asked to be included in the district.
It was Earls who introduced the amendment enabling creation of the small-scale district, now being called the “High Street Local Historic District, State Street to Wills Lane.”
If approved, the new Local Historic District would be the city’s second. Newburyport established the Fruit Street Historic District in October 2007 to protect several properties, including the 1808 Caleb Cushing House at the corner of Fruit and High streets.
Studies across the country show inclusion in a Local Historic District leads to higher property values and gives the homeowners the satisfaction of knowing that their homes’ architectural details and the beauty of their streetscapes will be preserved in perpetuity. And, in communities like Newburyport, where the architectural fabric of the city is a driving force in tourism, Local Historic Districts help fuel the local economic engine.
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. That committee produced the proposed ordinance that was amended by the City Council last week.
Local historic districts offer the strongest form of protection for structures deemed worthy of preservation. Statewide, more than 220 such districts have been established, including those in Beverly, Haverhill, Melrose, and Rowley. In Newburyport, the proposal reignited a decades-old dispute between those who believe a Local Historic District is needed to preserve the city’s rich heritage and homeowners who view the measure as an assault on their property rights.
Under the proposal’s current iteration, Newburyport’s existing Historical Commission and the Fruit Street Local Historic District Commission would be subsumed by a new historical commission; that body would assume the responsibilities of the existing Historical Commission and oversee both the Fruit and High street districts.
When the council reconvenes next month, leaders will also consider whether Newburyport should adopt protections for historic structures in the downtown area and a stronger demolition delay bylaw.
Sarah White, chairwoman of the Local Historic District Study Committee, said she is hopeful that the City Council’s ongoing discussions will ultimately “resolve the longstanding question of how Newburyport will approach preservation . . . and protect the economic and cultural engine of the city.”