BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — NEWBURYPORT – The Merrimack River is one of the city’s most visible resources, and a small group of local citizens is determined to protect access to it.
The group calls itself the Newburyport Citizens Chapter 91 Committee, and several members recently appeared at a meeting of the Waterfront Trust. The Trust was reviewing plans of the proposed Newburyport Ale House at 40 Merrimac St., at the head of Riverside Park.
Chapter 91 refers to state guidelines that declare that waterfront acreage (”filled commonwealth tidelands”) should be used for purposes primarily related to the water, such as boating, fishing and sightseeing.
Bill Harris and Larry McCavitt, organization chairman, and perhaps a dozen others make up the Chapter 91 Committee. McCavitt says that close to 50 are on their mailing list. It was founded almost two decades ago, and seems to revive itself as the issues warrant.
Harris told Trust members this week that they should not extend agreements that designate private parking for nearby businesses. (Riverside Park offers about 65 public metered parking slots.)
Harris expressed concern that the Trust would permit the proposed Ale House almost a dozen spaces for use of its employees. He said that employee parking is not an appropriate use for land governed by Chapter 91.
Harris, a lawyer and longtime waterfront watcher, told Trust members, “If you designate private parking for certain shops and businesses, we will challenge it. Private use parking is going in the wrong direction.”
As a result of the Committee’s veiled threat to seek an enforcement order prohibiting such private parking, about 11 parking spaces appear to have been made available to the general public.
“Parking spots that in past years had been under agreement with private businesses will now be available for all parkers,” said Doug Locy, chairman of the Waterfront Trust. “They can be used by anyone coming into town now.”
The Chapter 91 Committee doesn’t get involved in every waterfront issue, but members seek “meaningful public uses at the waterfront in connection with state licensing of developer uses of state-owned tidelands and tidewaters.”
“The public benefit is supposed to exceed the private benefit,” said McCavitt, who was a two-term city councilor (2006-09) here.
McCavitt said waterfront businesses such as whale watches and eco-tours require parking spots to permit customers to get to their boats.
Committee members say they have appeared at local hearings to “lobby” for open access for the rail trail and to ensure that “ways to the water” remain open to tourists and residents alike.
“We want to make sure that visitors planning to go out on boats and whale watches have a place to park,” said Harris. “Those are waterfront uses (encouraged) under Chapter 91, and those businesses are good for the city as well as the tourists who use them.”
The Chapter 91 Committee also has been vocal when possible at meetings of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. Harris has encouraged NRA members to carry out test borings of NRA land, about 4.2 acres adjacent to the riverfront, so planning for the future can be made with facts and figures in hand.
If a developer is planning for 33 condo units, as one consultant has suggested, that would require 66 parking spaces - underground.
Members say this is an example of Chapter 91 Committee oversight - if the soil quality or water table isn’t deemed adequate to support commercial structures, it’s better to learn that lesson now.
“We don’t want to stop projects, we want to make them better,” said McCavitt.
Locy, the Trust chairman, said, “The committee has a purpose. They want to make sure anything that gets done on the (river) water is in accordance with Chapter 91.”