, Newburyport, MA

October 12, 2012

Guiding the proposed LHD

White led study group for divisive measure

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Editor’s Note: As the discussion over a proposed Local Historic District in Newburyport continues through the fall and makes its way to the City Council for final review, The Daily News will be profiling several of the principals involved on both sides of the debate in the coming days.

The following is a look at Sarah M. White, who is chairwoman of the Local Historic District Study Committee, which created the proposed ordinance.

NEWBURYPORT — For a person who majored in Spanish in college and spent her early career in technology, Sarah M. White today finds herself immersed in history and architectural preservation.

As chairwoman of the Local Historic District Study Committee, she has presided over scores of meetings and written numerous memos and drafts involving new guidelines relating to historic structures.

Named to the committee in 2007 and ascending to its helm a year later, the High Street resident has spent as much time studying the issue as anyone in the city.

“There will be a sense of relief when this is over, but it has been a great experience,” said White, a native of Connecticut who moved here a decade ago.

“I’ve met many knowledgeable people and learned a great deal. There are so many aspects to historic preservation.”

After majoring in Spanish at Smith College, Smith then held several positions in the software quality assurance field. She was a senior consultant with Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting), and also held the title of technical adviser at Harvard Business School and Houghton Mifflin Publishing Co.

Her interests shifted to preservation in recent years. From 2007 to 2011, she served as president and chairwoman of the Newburyport Preservation Trust.

As part of her new interest, she received a certificate in historic preservation studies from Boston Architecture College in 2010. She soon will receive a master’s degree in that field.

Her “day job” currently is as publicity and marketing manager for the Historical Society of Old Newbury.

She said that an affinity with her grandparents and their historic homes and memories is part of the reason she has gravitated to the field.

She has clearly spent the last half-dozen years pursuing preservation, and her “off hours” have been full.

One reason it has been such a time-consuming position is that the proposed LHD has proven to be controversial and numerous informational sessions have been held to meet with residents and collect their input. Some exchanges between proponents and opponents have been heated.

White by definition believes in the document her team has produced, but she said she does not proselytize in favor of the LHD.

“I want to make myself available to answer questions and provide facts, because some information out there is hearsay and not factual,” White said.

In recent months, numerous residents along High Street and other avenues have put up lawn signs either supporting an LHD or opposing it.

Proponents say the measure will help preserve historic houses and architecture. Opponents counter that such an ordinance would be a violation of the rights of property owners, and that current regulations are adequate.

White said an LHD would consolidate several boards into one commission that would pass judgment on the construction of new buildings and alterations to existing ones.

Also, she said that having guidelines for the demolition of old homes would be useful. Current statutes can delay a demolition for a year, but after that period, a historic home could be torn down and replaced by more modern structures, city officials say.

Though White has been on the Local Historic District Study Committee for five years, it appears that her work with the board is not yet done.

The City Council’s Planning and Development Committee and the Council of the Whole are meeting Wednesday, Oct. 25, to discuss the proposal. Residents can ask questions.

If the Planning and Development panel votes the measure out of committee, the City Council will hold hearings. The council must approve the measure on two separate readings, with the vote requiring support from a “super-majority” of eight of the 11 councilors.

As for White, it appears that a voluntary position to preserve historic architecture here is itself beginning to take on a lengthy history.