By Lynne Hendricks
---- — NEWBURYPORT — If the question were put to the City Council today, the creation of a Local Historic District across the downtown and High Street isn’t likely to pass.
That’s what Councilor Kathleen O’Connor Ives suggested last night when the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee and the Council of the Whole discussed the ordinance’s merits.
Chairman Barry Connell said he’s not counted the votes and isn’t sure enough of where councilors stand to make a prediction.
But considering the mixed feelings expressed by councilors who attended last night’s meeting, many of whom were speaking out on the issue for the first time, he proposed that his three-person committee send the ordinance to the full council meeting on Nov. 26 “without prejudice” for an up or down vote.
“That’s about all the public can ask of us,” said Connell.
City officials say a super-majority of eight members (if all 11 councilors are present) must vote in favor of the ordinance for passage.
Residents on both sides of the issue have spoken out in public venues for months on the reasons one should fear or support a local LHD.
Last night it was councilors’ turn to delve into the details as put forth by the LHD Study Committee and voice their pros and cons of the proposed ordinance, which would create a district to include the downtown business section as well as High Street and other historic avenues in the heart of the city.
And like the community they represent, which has detractors and supporters in equal measure, councilors appeared to be split on support for it.
O’Connor Ives indicated she would not likely support the proposed ordinance with a yes vote, and instead came to the meeting with a proposal she felt more comfortable supporting.
Her proposal, she said, would create a historic district standard in the commercial downtown area to protect the investment made in the downtown through urban renewal in the ‘70s. And it would also create a demolition control ordinance across the swath of the city already designated as a National Historic District.
“That’s a defendable standard,” said O’Connor Ives.
The order would ask two questions of homeowners looking to demolish a home — is it a historic home and does it have structural integrity?
“They have to show it’s not historical and it’s not structurally sound before they can tear it down,” she said. “I think it can be done. I’m not in a place to vote for the one in committee right now.”
Councilor Dick Sullivan came down against the ordinance as well, even though he supported some protections for the downtown area his father helped restore during urban renewal.
“My main concern is that it would spread out from there,” he said.
Sullivan came down strongly against the ordinance as proposed, which he said was the work of residents looking to change the way things have always worked in the city of Newburyport.
Citing a preference for the strengthening of the city’s demolition delay ordinance and the inclusion of historic areas in a zoning overlay, Councilor Bob Cronin weighed in against the proposal, as did Ari Herzog, who claimed he still had many questions about the plan.
In contrast, Councilor Ed Cameron stood firmly in support of the measure, and retold a story of growing up in Bridgewater, where things were not as well preserved as they were in Newburyport. He suggested that Newburyport is special because people made hard choices in the ‘70s to preserve it, but residents shouldn’t expect those efforts make preservation into the future a foregone conclusion.
“If we don’t pass some measure, this will look a lot different 10 to 20 years from now,” said Cameron. “To me (the ordinance) seems very reasonable.”
Cameron asked the eight councilors in attendance at the meeting to consider the 221 communities throughout Massachusetts that had successfully implemented the proposed LHD legislation being considered for Newburyport. And to the residents who have stated they believe their property begins at their fence and everything they do between that fence and along their property line is within their right, he objected.
“I think that’s a really misguided view of property rights,” said Cameron. “We are affected by what our neighbors do.”
Cameron also spoke to concerns voiced by residents that they would be subjected to overzealous appointees making up the Local Historic District Committee proposed to govern the LHD by suggested that safeguards are in place to remove members for such actions.
“If someone isn’t doing something right, they can be removed,” said Cameron. “If we wanted to make the (three-year) terms shorter I’d be amenable to that.”
Councilors Allison Heartquist and Greg Earls voiced support for the ordinance, which they felt was mild. And Barry Connell offered that he would vote yes as well if it came to a vote.
“I don’t believe the imposition of some restrictions from an LHD is the death knell for property rights,” said Connell.
Being the only two members of the Planning and Development Committee present at the meeting, with Brian Derrivan detained by a business conflict, O’Connor Ives and Connell voted to send the issue to the full council without a yes or no recommendation for consideration at its Nov. 26 meeting.
“This is a matter of broad public interest,” said Connell of the decision.