1. Historic District Signage
2. National Register Education & Protection
3. Sidewalk Installation & Maintenance Plan
4. Tree Commission Support
5. Utility Lines Undergrounding
6. Rubber sheeting
7. New Building Inspector & Building Department
8. National Landmark Status
9. Archeological Ordinance
10. Public Restriction Tract Index
11. Local Historic District Expansion
One of the most frightening prospects that will be coming to Newburyport soon is the planned morphing of the present Massachusetts Building Code to the tougher standards of the Stretch Code as deemed by the Green Community Act. Presently the Stretch Code only covers new construction and to additions to existing buildings.
Even our current Massachusetts Building Code as it stands makes it impossible for a structure as recent as one built in the 70’s to be compliant. The reaction from the construction industry has been to take a building whether commercial or residential and gut it down to the studs and then to rebuild according to the current building code.
This even at today’s current standards are disastrous for historic buildings.
Have you ever noticed some faux historic buildings made to look like they have been here for a hundred years or more? They are never quite right – that is because they must follow the stringent rules for new construction by which historic buildings would never be able to comply.
But thankfully Massachusetts has made the extra effort to ensure its precious inventory of historic structures are not threatened by including 780 CMR 34.00. This allows for some exemptions especially when it comes to structural integrity.
Fortunately for Newburyport, our entire inventory of contributing historic buildings to the Newburyport Historic District fall under this exemption. They are then protected even from the Stretch Code i.e. the future Massachusetts building code. For you see, in the future, even existing buildings will have to be made compliant if the Massachusetts Building Commissioner gets his way. Thus, it becomes extra imperative that this exception is made clear to contractors, developers, homeowners and all connected parties involved.
But what if you have a building inspector who flatly refuses to inform any of the local players of the state of this exemption?
A TRANSFORMATIVE FUTURE DISASTER CALLED, ‘What-used-to-be-Newburyport’.
We will see a rising tide of property owners demanding the ‘old’ buildings be torn down under the false assumption that it is more expensive to restore than to build new. (It’s actually the opposite in truth.) They will also believe that the renovation of old buildings will never comply with the building code and thus they will not be able to obtain their occupancy permit. We will see a tidal wave of exterior-interior gutting’s where only the frame is left. It will also be a terrible cheat to the contractors-developers and a terrible cheat to the homeowners since they will have needlessly spent excessive amounts of money. Worse still, it will be a horrible devastation to our National Heritage as historic buildings become nothing but a frame and foundation. In the end, it will be a terrible cheat to the community as most of our historic buildings are lost, one after another.
And yet, our building inspector has notified publicly to the planning office, the planning board and the historical commission that he will not inform anyone who comes to him for a permit that they are under the exemption of this section. He will leave it to the applicant to do due diligence.
He won’t have seminars to instruct the construction industry of the exemptions on historic buildings.
He won’t inform homeowners of the potential savings they could have preserving the building and thus avoiding the expensive requirements of the present building code let alone the future one.
Mayors come and go along with their planning directors but the building inspector stays on. Most permits that come to our city are ANR meaning ‘Approval Not Required’ and thus may never pass our volunteer boards regardless if it’s the Conservation Commission, the Historical Commission, the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Thus a dangerous situation has been setup by a single individual and his department.
This is, in my opinion, as it should be to anyone who knows that the cultural and economic engine of our city is the Newburyport Historic District; is tantamount to criminal negligence against our community and endangers future prospects of our quality of life.
Thus, in this coming election season, we need to pose a question to potential candidates for city council – do you support the current building inspector, or will you demand he and the building department change policy And if he refuses, remove him from office? It will and must be a hot-button issue!
But what about our Building Department itself? Why is there no provision for historical buildings? No programs to assist building owners on how to treat their antique structures? Furthermore, where are there any programs by which relief can be sought to ease the stress of renovating buildings over 100 years old? For that matter, is the department even set up to recognize that historical buildings are a significant factor when renovating here in Newburyport? In all truth, the entire department needs to be reformatted to deal with historic buildings, and to have the attitude that the city needs to protect them, not find ways to exploit them for ‘free cash’ and then haul away the remains.
PS. By the way, this has nothing to do with personal politics as destructive as they are. I do not know our building inspector personally. Know nothing of his allies, his friends or his personal political leanings. He can yell at me all he wants but I have no ill toward him. From his long career as Newburyport’s building inspector, and from his professional conduct – he would have probably won awards for his prowess if he had been in any other community. It is his single disastrous decision that has posed the necessity to demand that his tenure be reevaluated. (Early retirement is fine too.)
PPS. There are many situations where a pre-existing historic structure must follow the current building code due to such situations as certain ‘adaptive reuses’ of an historic* structure and to safety concerns. These are very closely defined. Thus, some attempt maybe to abuse the use of these exemptions and thus the public will need to know the details. Safety concerns, for example, are covered under a rating system that are clearly laid out in chart form. Not only are there protections under the building code, there are also protections especially in Massachusetts’ application of the state fire code. There are even means under zoning for some limited exemptions. Though the regulations are complicated, provisions are even made for lead paint abatement.
* For nitpickers, building department terms both historic & historical structures as the same, under a blanket term, ‘historic’.