In a recent opinion piece, a clumsy attempt at dispelling a local historic district has been attempted once again. Clumsy in that the real motive of the piece is blatantly stated at the end!
In this opinion, the idea is championed of preservation restrictions (sometimes called preservation easements though that moniker hardly reflects its true nature.)
Preservation restrictions are the ultimate aim of historic preservationists. Only through this vehicle can interiors if determined by the owner can actually be preserved in some degree. There are many homes still left in Newburyport that have not been gutted by ignorant homeowners and quick-profit developers. These few homes actually deserve to have this extra protection placed upon them.
But to enact them is extremely difficult. First, you have to have a listing on the National Register of historic places. This looks easy to a Newburyporter since we have a large swath that have this designation but in actuality nationwide it is a very expensive and longsuffering process. Second, you must locate a third-party ‘enforcer’ that is recognized by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and by such entities as the IRS or other government entities. I say the IRS because the PR was often abused as a means to get a large tax credit and then the owners would then violate the easement restrictions after having obtained the financial ‘benefits’. This has resulted in making the process even more difficult than it was originally conceived to prevent wanton abuse. Thirdly, it is a personal financial commitment. Depending on how far the easement will extend, a block amount of money is set aside which is to help fund the enforcement. It can be as little as the small amount that the Newburyport Historical Commission will require. (External enforcement only) or a goodly chunk of money for those who want to protect distinct internal historical features. Because of this, the IRS has provided generous tax credits to help compensate for the hardship this upfront money generates.
In our city, we actually have four ‘enforcers’ who are approved for use: the Historical Commission, Historic New England, Preservation Trust and the Trust for Architectural Easements. The Historic New England and the Trust for Architectural Easements are the only two that are equipped at this time to enforce internal restrictions though the Preservation Trust has plans in the future to be in this position eventually.
Now after saying all this, we can get back to Spot Zoning. This is when a property owner decides he doesn’t want to go along with the rest of the community in appearance and use. They want to be exempted whether from regular zoning or if historic preservation is practiced to be exempted from the look and feel of the community. The former often clog our rosters at the ZBA looking to make exceptions just for ‘them’. In theory, this will only be granted if there is some overall public advantage for the entire community. But often as much, political and social intimidation and a whole bevy of consultants, engineers and lawyers are brought to bear to get the spot zoning approved. And evidence of these approvals are apparent all over our very own city. In historic preservation issues, it is solely a desire not to go along with the community and to not satisfy the social desire to preserve the historic neighborhoods. More often than not, we have outside developers who have suburban standards to follow and can only see an old structure that needs to be swept away for a new building. That is why, at least externally, local historic districts and demolition delays are urgently needed to slow this thirst for destruction.
The fact is that the Newburyport Historic District is only valuable if taken as a whole. The very concept of spot zoning is a recipe for disaster.
“Everywhere one goes in Newburyport, one senses there are discoveries to be made…What it sets apart today is its completeness;[my bold facing] everywhere in Newburyport the old way of seeing predominates.”
-Jonathan Hale, The Old Way of Seeing, 1995.
If you don’t mind spending the gas, set a day apart and drive down to Plymouth. This international tourist spot is financially in trouble. It shouldn’t be. But when you arrive you will find out that spot zoning is dominate everywhere in the historic areas of the town. Historic is mixed with Modern, Small is intermixed with Large, beautifully preserved homes are surrounded by suburban homes. There is nothing that meets the eye except contradiction, and it has a financially disastrous affect. The modern homes drag down the value of the historic homes and the entire community is disjointed. The sense of community so precious in Newburyport is largely absent in Plymouth.
NO ONE SAYS, ‘I JUST HAVE TO LIVE IN PLYMOUTH’
This is why the local historic district ordinance is so vitally important to keep our city’s financial condition in the black. It is the intense desire of many to live in Newburyport that makes our real estate values so high (and our tax levies so rich!) It doesn’t take a statistical expert to see that if we make light of the need for historic preservation we will eventually having us looking at the same dire situation as Plymouth.
It is not too late for Newburyport for us to protect our treasured historic district.