Those of us who tend to judge the world through moral eyes need to realize that even the desire for money just to survive or to keep your standard of living; can often curdle the personal convictions of an individual, or an institution. To obtain it is likened to a water trying to find its way to the ocean. You can slow it down, and even stop it temporarily; but in the end the river can think of nothing else but its objective. The best way in the case of love of money is to redirect it by establishing design standards and standards in general that once accomplished or used; will satisfy the drive for money (while keeping our city intact). Unfortunately, Newburyport has had a real problem getting these established so the present condition is rampaging developers and inconsiderate property owners seeking the lowest common denominator.
Against this background flood has come the Demolition Control Overlay District (DCOD) to at least stem the tide as best it can. But it is structured with the assumption that law-abiding citizens with their responsibility to the community will be using it; not someone with the lust for personal gain who by their actions could care less if they screw the city or not*. Thus, good people need to realize that we need to identify those sections in the overlay that will be perverted so we can effectively counteract and try to save the heritage assets that have made our city so prosperous.
To counterpoint that, we also need to accommodate the volunteer board that is assembled, too. Yes, as much as they will deny it, it is a highly politicized group and just like our dubious court system in America, is filled with ‘expert’ witnesses and ‘friends of the court’. But they do, as all good bureaucrats must, keep an eye out for covering themselves point by point especially when it avoids generating excesses or a rash of appeals. Much of the procedures are highly interpretive and so they must be careful too in their deliberation to justify their actions if pressure is excessively put upon them.
Yes, the whole thing is a dismal affair – it would be so much easier if we were dealing with machines not humans! But you’ve got to deal with the hand that’s been given you and so you have to look at the DCOD and the ZBA’s special permit criteria in subsection X-H.7.
Watch out for holes!
The general intent of the DCOD is to preserve and repair historic buildings and structures whenever reasonably feasible. Given that, if you want to demolish it, you’ve got to prove you’ve got a very good reason to do it.
- Prove it’s not historic. (XXVIII-E, 7, a) One way is to show that the building is not ‘historic’. The DCOD has defined all structures that are ‘contributing’ to be historic. This is building code talk. Actually in the National Register, there are historical buildings that are just 50 years or older and then there are historic buildings in which some distinctive architecture, events or people were present in the building. Fortunately, the DCOD has taken that distinctive difference away so the next effort is to dispute the listings on the Newburyport Historic District. One way is contesting the age – which is why historic preservationists need to redouble their efforts to document historic (historical) buildings throughout the district. The second is to declare that all distinctive architecture in the ‘contributing’ buildinghave been destroyed or so modified as to have it declared removed from the National Register listing. These are “MC” in the inventory. This has all too often been done in town when it comes to the interior, but the ZBA can only rule on the exterior condition.Solution: prove its history, and document its exterior architectural features and structure and locate ancient drawings, and photographs to prove it still has eligibility to be ‘contributing’.
2. Accessory or external buildings on the property are not listed. This just occurred last week. The Newburyport Historic District’s inventory had to cover 2,750 plus buildings. In the registering process, many structures were not specifically mentioned such as barns, garages and sheds. Since only the main buildings are mentioned as ‘contributing’, the Planning Office and the ZBA have deemed that the DCOD does not apply to them. This is a boon for the recent trend to build additions and if the lot allows, an additional building; but it’s a disaster for our historic barns and carriage houses.
Solution: This needs to be appealed for the specific purpose of getting a final decision if historic structures on the property are included in the Register or not for the sake of preserving our many historic outbuildings. Mass Historic has declared that all buildings are included in the Register even if they are not mentioned in the listing. The next question: if so, how does one determine if it is ‘contributing’, ‘MC’ or an Intrusion? Legal decisions can not rely unfortunately on common sense so this must be appealed to settle it once and for all.
3. It has no market value or reasonable use. (XXVIII-E, 3, 4) This area will be the playground of interpretive abuse. They must take into account the cost of rehabilitation to meet the requirements of the State Building Code as it applies to historic buildings. As I have repeated, antique buildings are exempt from the stringent requirements that are demanded of new buildings. To avoid this misunderstanding, the DCOD requests a condition report by a properly licensed architect or engineer experienced in the restoration of historic structures, or a recognized building preservation specialist. In addition, a real estate appraiser (not required to be a historic building expert) will prepare an appraisal report on the existing market value of the historic building compared to the cost estimate contained within the conditions report. There is no requirement for someone who is experienced in assessing old buildings – this is a classic ‘expert advice’ for the highest bidder and highly subjective. Another dirty trick is to create a report that basically demands the entire adherence of the Secretary of Interior Standards as if the house was going to be a house museum thus skewing the numbers so it looks like a new building would be cheaper in the long run. All a demo-lawyer needs is to hire one fanatic from Historic New England and the building will be rubble!
Solution: all ‘experts’ need to be vetted and a second opinion required from another ‘expert’. The conditions report and the real estate appraiser’s report need to be examined and contested if need be. Taken these reports at face value will only guarantee a demolition. Yes, it’s tiresome and may even be expensive if it requires an appeal but we’re talking preserving national treasures in the Newburyport Historic District
4. The building has so been abandoned or neglected, it must come down. XXVIII-F specifically covers this. When an empty building is not properly taken care off (For example, the snow on top of the Deluge One building causing a roof collapse because they didn’t bother to shovel it.), the building inspector needs to enforce according to this section against the deliberate damage caused by weather, fire, trespass, or vandalism or leaving the building with exterior openings and not protecting from fire or water damage.
Solution: According to XXVIII-F, a filed written request to enforce the securing of the building needs to go to the building inspector consistent with section X.
5. Zoning Board of Appeals Special Permit Criteria. (X-H.7) Sometimes, to obtain your objective, you need to follow the path of least resistance. Perhaps instead of arguing over the historic building, use standard zoning criteria to argue against the demolition of the building. There are many dimensional or health-related or traffic generating problems that will be caused by the newer structure or the removal of the historic building will violate the zoning flow of the area.
To summarize what is needed for citizens and historic preservationists to use the DCOD effectively,
- Abutters need to be approached. (Didn’t do any good last week, but it is proper due diligence)
- Establish complete architectural surveys and histories on all contributing buildings.
- Interpretation issues must be disputed.
- Decisions must be monitored, and if necessary disputed.
- Documents must be read, and if necessary disputed.
- Experts need to be vetted, and if necessary contested.
- Explore and be familiarized with the process of appeal.
* And don’t forget their many allies who by their own motives, wish to imagine or realize their gain too.