By Dyke Hendrickson
NEWBURYPORT — A plan to create a large historic district in the city has been expanded to also protect the appearance of the roadway, sidewalks and trees of High Street, the road that forms the backbone of the district.
In related news, dueling online petitions expressing support and opposition for a Local Historic District were launched this week, suggesting that debate among residents is escalating even though a City Council vote could be months away.
The Historic District Study Committee, a five-member board that drafted the boundaries and regulations for the district, has included a new section focusing on specific aspects of High Street itself: its width, trees and sidewalks. It focuses on the concept of "major alterations" and if enacted, would allow the Historic District Commission to have input on those alterations. However, the commission would not have the authority to "grant or deny" a permit.
It defines "major alterations" as single projects that call for the removal of 10 or more trees, removal of 100 or more linear feet of brick sidewalk, installing 10 or more new signs, or changing the curb lines or width of High Street. An exception is allowed for tree removal if ordered by the tree warden for safety reasons.
Sarah White, chairwoman of the study committee, said drafters of this addition to the proposed ordinance were inspired by memories of the controversial state project more than a decade ago that proposed to widen High Street to a uniform width and cut down numerous trees. That plan ran into considerable opposition and was abandoned.
High Street's width varies from a narrow 30 feet to an expansively wide 65 feet, a reflection of its evolution over the span of the city's history. Some of the widest areas once had underground cisterns for fire prevention. Brick sidewalks are fairly common along it, though there are areas of concrete sidewalks.
"This proposal regarding major alterations is designed to make sure that City Hall and the LHD commission have some say on 'major alterations' of High Street," White said. "We are continuing to inform people of what the study committee is doing. We've had a lot of feedback, and there certainly is a lot of community interest on this topic."
The proposed historic district would include buildings on both sides of High Street and the three blocks on either side of downtown State Street. Building owners would be required to go before the board for review and approval if they plan major changes to a historic structure, such as an addition, changing roof lines, window or door styles, or removing historic exterior elements. The rules apply to buildings that are at least 75 years old. There are nearly 800 buildings within the district that would be affected.
Representatives of the LHD study committee said they are planning a public panel discussion, possibly on Monday, March 9. The date will be finalized in coming weeks.
The online petition duel has just started to heat up in the past few days.
The pro-LHD petition is succinct: "We the undersigned are in support of creating a Local Historic District for Newburyport that consists of High Street, the gateway to the city and downtown Newburyport."
Author of the petition is listed as Mary Baker Eaton, a local artist and blogger who has advocated strongly for the district. The first signer of the pro-LHD petition was Eaton, and the second signer was lawyer-activist Bill Harris. This petition had 58 signatures yesterday afternoon.
A petition opposing LHD touches on several issues, built around the concern that property rights should be preserved.
It objects to "adding more layers/hurdles to an already cumbersome and costly process to Newburyport taxpayers."
It expresses concerns about the LHD process and "the creation of the LHD committee with the power to put their thumb of non-approval on any proposed improvements made on any property within the district."
Eaton said yesterday that she was pleased with the results so far.
"When I checked, the petitions showed 58 for the LHD and six against," said Eaton, who was a major force in helping stop the state-initiated attempt to widen High Street about a decade ago.
"A lot of people don't fully understand the (LHD) issue yet, so I meet people, I blog, I try to educate."
The opposition group petition also says a LHD would be "stifling architectural innovation and diversity, creating a committee with absolute control of every street, every roof line, every door, every window and every landscape treatment. Citizens and taxpayers will have to stand before the appointed panel, hat in hand, to request permission to construct, replace and renovate something upon their property, that most have spent significant portions of their lives to buy, maintain and pay ever-increasing taxes upon."
In concludes, "Signing the petition states clearly that you are opposed to the LHD."
This petition, like the pro-LHD, appears on the website www.gopetition.com.
The anti-LHD measure was not signed by an individual but ostensibly organized by a group with the slogan, "No LHD tea for me."
The first two signers were Kathleen and Richard Hordon, who several weeks ago began organizing opposition. Their site had six signatures by yesterday afternoon.
Neither of the Hordons could be reached for comment. The final report of the Local District Historic Study Committee won't be finished until late spring, committee members say.
That report would go to the City Council, where it likely would be sent to committee for study and perhaps a public hearing.
The council will say yes or no to the LHD, with a super-majority of eight "yes" votes being required for passage.