, Newburyport, MA

January 26, 2013

Home razings call for demolition delay laws

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Last week’s razing of the Florence E. Bushee House in Newbury has produced a strong reaction from residents who are saddened by the loss of such a landmark property.

It’s the second time in less than a year that Newbury has gone through this. Last year, it was the razing of the landmark Tappan House on Littles Lane that sparked community anger and regret.

These two events beg the question of whether Newbury should put a historic homes demolition delay bylaw on its books. The conversation ought to start now, and there are strong arguments why Newbury should move quickly to place this piece of protective legislation on the books.

The most simple and compelling argument is that Newbury is historically unique, and its landmarks are worthy of protecting for future generations.

Newbury is the oldest incorporated community in our region. In 1635, barely five years after the Puritans founded their “City on a Hill” in Boston, they created a handful of other settlements at strategic points within the boundaries of their chartered Massachusetts Bay territory in order to lay claim and push aside any interlopers. Newbury was one of those vital settlements.

Its landscape has been shaped by this founding role. Newbury became a springboard for expanded settlements, particularly Newburyport. Yet Newbury itself has maintained much of its rural character, a look and feel it has held since the beginning.

Certain properties exemplify this. The Bushee home was one of them. These are landmarks to Newbury’s character and history, well worth preserving for future generations.

Demolition delay laws, such as those in place in Amesbury and Newburyport, do not prohibit the destruction of a historic property. They delay the razing for a period of time, like a year, so that alternatives can be found. And there is no beating around the bush with this simple fact — demolition delays are intended to be an impediment against quick teardowns of historic properties.

There’s a frequent argument made that demolition delays amount to strong-arm government intervention into property rights, and that people who want to see these homes preserved should buy them themselves. These are arguments that have some merit, but they also ignore the many levels of government control over private property that currently exist. Our land is zoned to allow this use but not that use; we can build here but not too close to there; we can’t build beyond this height; we can’t build near this stream or fill in that swamp; and on and on. We are already heavily invested in regulations that are meant to make development more appealing and more orderly. Demolition delays are a logical extension of zoning laws, applied to communities where historic buildings are prevalent.

It is a sad irony that Florence Bushee was a beloved leader in local historic preservation. She was a major contributor to Newburyport’s restoration of its historic downtown, and she preserved other iconic properties such as Newbury’s Seddon Tavern and the Dole House. She was a person who valued Newbury and Newburyport’s past, and used her financial resources to enhance and protect it. We are all better for it.

There is no one like Florence Bushee alive today to do these kinds of things. That’s why Newbury ought to consider her legacy and begin the debate on a historic home demolition delay bylaw.