Amendment leaves Port woman with custom windows, no permit

Jeannette Belben, the owner of this condominium unit on Park Street in Newburyport, has run into a roadblock with the city while trying to replace her inside windows, which can be seen through the storm windows.BRYAN EATON/Staff photo

NEWBURYPORT — An amendment to the city zoning ordinance, which set guidelines for the preservation and replacement of historic wooden window sashes in the downtown, left a local woman with $2,500 worth of custom windows and no permit to install them.

Jeannette Belben finalized the purchase of a condominium at 4 Park St. in the fall with the intention of fixing it up and renting it out until she decided to move in. The house was built in 1900, according to the city assessor’s database.

In early to mid-September, her real estate agent, Susan Thomas of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, went to City Hall to find out if Belben could replace the seven wooden window sashes in her unit.

“I’m retired and I plan to live there eventually so, of course, I wanted new windows,” Belben said, adding that a majority of the other condo owners in the building had replaced their windows.

Thomas reportedly spoke to a member of the Planning Department and was told Belben could replace the window, so long as the outside window opening was not made bigger or smaller. She did not know the name of the person who told her this.

Belben hired a contractor and paid him $2,500 upfront to buy seven custom windows. When the contractor went to get a permit to install them, however, he was informed of a new ordinance amendment. 

Following discussions in June, the City Council set guidelines for the preservation of “moveable wood sash windows” that date back a century or more. The ordinance took effect in the fall.

These wood-framed windows — contrary to popular belief — are sustainable and energy efficient due to the density and durability of the materials, according to the amendment.

“Busy property owners are often led to believe that old windows cannot be repaired, and that they are inconvenient, high-maintenance, inefficient, and ultimately replaceable,” the ordinance states. “Historic wood windows were built to last, however, and some are still in service after two centuries or more.”

As a result, the city moved to require residents in the Downtown Overlay District to consult the Office of Planning and Development before replacing windows.

“It’s still a relatively new provision and people are just getting accommodated to it,” said Andy Port, the city planning director. 

In Belben’s case, he said, “It was a transitional period. She was talking to the Realtor before the ordinance was amended and thought there might be a possibility of using the replacement windows. 

“But, unfortunately, she had gone ahead and purchased those windows without consulting us,” Port said, adding that he looked at her current windows and ultimately deemed them repairable. 

Port said each situation may be different depending on the structure and the windows involved. In seeking to replace them, people have to prove either that they are not the original windows or that they cannot be salvaged or restored in some way.

“The council had made a policy decision last year in adopting that ordinance for downtown to require that folks restore windows first, and only as a last resort, replace those historic windows with a new material,” Port said. “In either case, the windows downtown essentially need to maintain the historic integrity of those buildings.”

For now, Belben has stored the windows away until she can figure out how to proceed. She cannot get a refund since they were custom-made. She could bring the matter before the Zoning Board of Appeals, but she is hesitant to spend more money.

Port said each situation is unique, depending on the history, the type of structure and the state of the windows.

“So for folks who are interested in replacing windows in the downtown, we strongly suggest that they consult our office first,” he said. “We can take a look at the structure that’s involved, the windows in particular, and any historical information on that building that explains what those windows used to look like historically.”

Staff writer Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.

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