The ‘Managed’ Destruction of Newburyport’s Historical Buildings

It has long been planned when Councilor Ives was on the Council to have an expanded demolition delay ordinance to help protect not just our downtown but the rest of the historical buildings in the city.       There has been talk of extending it to two years and recently it has been proposed to be extended only to 18 months.       This is the legitimate work of the council as they work to put in some measure of protection.

The problem is a demolition delay is like a divorce.       It is supposed to be used only as a last resort when all other attempts of negotiation and persuasion have failed.      Like a divorce, the delay only postpones and in many cases accelerates demolition.      Recently, the ability of the Newburyport Historical Commission to do such persuasion has been resoundingly been criticized by the anti-historic preservationists.       This growing legal and political harassment prevents the Commission in having a free hand to work with an applicant to find a solution that avoids imposing a demolition delay.

Now it is clear with this cynical submission being planned for tomorrow night that the intention at least as it is presently written is to have the Historical Commission stripped of its power leaving it to look on helplessly as the gradual destruction of our historical buildings proceeds.       To demonstrate how bad this is, let us parse the document:


Table of Contents:

Applicant Addition

Preventing duties as assigned by the state

Documentation – an apology for destruction

The Building Commissioner takes over the NHC

The Building Commissioner becomes an architect


Applicant Addition


Councilor Cronin has added an applicant definition to the ordinance. One of the problems with the current demo delay is the appearance of contractors and developers who are under contract with the owner appearing before the Historical Commission.      It has been proposed by some that the original owner should be the one to appear.     Often times, ‘parties’ of dubious character have often persuaded historical building owners of the impossibility of ever ‘meeting code’.     Playing on their ignorance, they exaggerate the impossibility of the structure ever being renovated to the point of residency.     But it is a fact that, at least in the Newburyport Historic District that buildings listed as ‘contributing’ are exempt from the full application of the Massachusetts Building Code.      By having the owner appear, the Historical Commission will be able to reveal this fact as well as the Planning Office.     

Unfortunately, Councilor Cronin’s addition into the ordinance still allows ‘agents’ which puts a barrier between the applicant and the Commission.     This does not resolve this problem.

Preventing duties as assigned by the state


Taken from M.G.L. Chapter 40, Section 8D.    “For the purpose of protecting and preserving such places, it may make such recommendations as it deems necessary to the city council or the selectmen and, subject to the approval of the city council or the selectmen, to the Massachusetts historical commission, that any such place be certified as an historical or archeological landmark.”

The Historical Commission has purview on all historical buildings throughout the city which may or may not be included in the National Register of Historic Places.    At least inside the Newburyport Historic District, these buildings are automatically included in their oversight.

According to the National Register there is a sliding scale.    As the years go by, more homes inside the district are included as ‘contributing’ to the register.        The NHD had an original setting of 1930 as the benchmark for an historical home.       It is now 1960 which means some buildings inside the district from 1930 to 1960 are now eligible to be covered under the demolition delay.

Councilor Cronin wants to halt this eligibility at 1930.   This of course is an insidious attack on the authority of the Commission.       As more homes become eligible as the years go by, the Historical Commission’s power will diminish as the existing inventory before 1930 are slowly pecked away and demolished.     

But this is poorly written – subsections (1) and (2) contradict subsection (3).       They are to enforce the National Register as Mass Historic and the National Park Service rules dictate but they are not to enforce all of it.   

It flatly means the Historical Commission can not fulfill its responsibilities under M.G.L. Chapter 40, Section 8D

Documentation – an apology for destruction


So now instead of the applicant working with the Historical Commission to find ways to preserve and protect an historical building; all efforts including gathering together carpenters, engineers, contractors and lawyers will be devoted to creating a legal case for demolition.      

In effect, no longer is the stress for preservation efforts but the stress will be to find any means possible to have the house demolished. This little intrusion will make a lot of people money (extracted from applicants) but it will destroy the spirit and intent of the demolition delay ordinance.

The Building Commissioner takes over the NHC

Looks like the Building Commissioner gets to jump in and do the duties of the Historical Commission!




And on top of this plan comes the ability in section c of the applicants to constantly harass the Commission on some new ‘evidence’ that allows them to destroy the building.  It is clear from the inclusion of these measures, the entire tone of the ordinance is to find new and extraordinary means to find reasons to demolish a building – how does this help the city to preserve its most valuable assets?


The Building Commissioner becomes an architect!


Talk about giving the Building Commissioner even more authority!      Now he gets to dictate to an architect the size limitations of this building.      And he dictates the original footprint of the building – the only place I know this is true in the city is the state-controlled area of Plum Island!       Seems if this was imposed, the ZBA’s workload will be greatly increased and then, of course, here come the lawsuits!

I encourage anyone who values our community to speak against this ordinance.        Perhaps this stinker could be used as a launching point toward expanding the demolition ordinance but these suggested measures would have to be taken out that prevent the dedicated volunteer Historical Commission from doing its job!

City Council meets at 7:30 tomorrow night – be sure to get there early at 7:15 to get your name on the clipboard for public speaking.      

-P. Preservationist

PS. I can not attend as I am taping at the CPA at the same time – I will be sending in a letter to the city councilors.



This entry was posted in Demolitions, Historic Demolitions, News and politics, Planning, Preservation, Renovation, Restoration, Streetscape. Bookmark the permalink.

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