NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

August 6, 2012

No LHD: What's that about?

Viewpoint
C. Peter Erickson

---- — I don’t get it: NO LHD - Support Homeowner’s Rights.” I still cannot understand what “rights” they’re talking about. What’s so wrong having a Local Historic District?

In 1811 downtown Newburyport burned to the ground. As a result, city fathers, true patriots, most likely survivors of the American Revolution, made it law that buildings constructed in the central market area would be built of brick. And as a result, our city has become what it is today rather than being developed as an urban renewal strip mall on the Merrimack. Imagine that. Tea Party patriots (the real Tea Party, held in Newburyport a week before the Boston Tea Party, not their contemporary counterparts) passed a law dictating what construction material private property owners must use if they wanted to rebuild.

And so it has been with zoning codes as the city grew and developed. Laws determine setback from the street, side yard and back lot lines. Codes determine building height and maximum lot coverage by homeowners for the purpose of preserving light and air for the general welfare of neighborhood residents. Clearly, “homeowner rights” do not entitle one to build whatever you want, however you want, not even on your own private property. Homeowner rights? What rights are they talking about?

So, too, with plumbing codes. In order to prevent your outhouse from polluting my well, laws were passed to put bathrooms indoors. Imagine that! Just to promote the general welfare, laws were even passed telling homeowners where they can or cannot do that. Talk about homeowner’s rights!

As time went on, electric codes were passed, again in support of the general welfare. The law of the land dictates that it is not OK for you to burn down even your own house with faulty wiring … and one is actually forbidden from installing wiring that might electrocute one’s self … on private property, no less. What about homeowner’s rights?

Just recently the eighth edition of the building codes for the commonwealth came into effect. Among other new regulations are the ones dictating that your home must be insulated to given standards, thereby going to the extent of determining what’s behind the walls, even in the privacy of your own home. If the “NO LHD” group is so bent on homeowner’s rights, where were they when these new building codes came out ... not a peep.

And so you see, I still do not get the “homeowner’s rights” part of it. I do, however, have a pretty good idea about what’s going on with the signs. You know, the “NO LHD” signs that festoon our byways. At the last open public meeting, Mayor Holaday appealed to both sides of the issue to take down the signs (put their guns down) in order to work things out in a constructive atmosphere. To this the leader of the “NO” group responded; “We are going to keep ours in place. And if the city says they want to try an LHD for a year or so and see how it goes, we’ll keep them up for 10 years.”

Thank you for putting the issue into clear perspective. Now I understand that this is what the “NO” signs are actually saying. These signs are saying, “It’s my way or the highway”… as the “NO” group falls in line behind their leader. But what’s that about?

Many years ago, when rebuilding my fence on High Street, one of our neighbors came by to say, “ … you know, Dear, in Newburyport we like to have a glimpse of the back yards.” No problem. I put lattice on top of our fence. Today the roses intertwine, a positive improvement that has garnered many compliments over the years. But consider the homeowner who plans to live out his or her days on a quiet side street, only to have a developer from Dracut (this has actually happened) build a towering townhouse next door, then sell out and move on. Where’s the “homeowner’s rights” in that? Or, what if the residents of my neighborhood are generally in favor of trying out a Local Historic District, yet are prevented from doing so by residents living outside the proposed district, on Plum Island or even in Newbury. City councilors must not be swayed by those misplaced, droopy “NO” signs. That would be the only real violation of our homeowner’s rights.

As the summer winds down, remaining “NO LHD” signs wear on, sadly sagging here and there, but to what effect? Is this how city councilors will decide public policy in the future — by taking a sign count? Or will they establish the precedent of passing law by just listening to whatever group can be the loudest for the longest? Sure, we can still have homeowner’s rights and the proposed LHD provides for this. But more than ever before, the City of Newburyport is under pressure to develop real estate for profit, not just for its people and the quality of life. This city has become a destination specifically because of its historical support for preservation, not despite its history.

Before being tempted to take the easy way out, I would implore our elected leaders to seriously consider the example that was set by true Tea Party patriots after the great fire of 1811. Their action and foresight was what ultimately saved Newburyport from being developed as the Merrimack Mall. Say YES to LHD.

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C. Peter Erickson is a past chair of the Newburyport Historic Commission and has lived on High Street for 24 years.