Newburyport funeral home at odds with abutters over parking lot

BRYAN EATON/Staff photoTwomey-LeBlanc and Conte Funeral Home on High Street in Newburyport is trying to formally add a parking area behind the building.

NEWBURYPORT — The owner of a local funeral home is fighting to build a parking lot on his High Street property, much to the dismay of abutters who claim doing so would be a detriment to their neighborhood.

Louie Hebbelinck, who owns Twomey-LeBlanc and Conte Funeral Home at 193 High St., and his attorney, Lisa Mead, filed an application in October for a special permit to build a 50-space parking lot in the gravel-covered backyard that extends about 50 feet behind the building.

But when abutters were notified about the application, they opposed the project. Many complained it would create problems in their neighborhood, including light pollution and vehicle noise.

In response, Hebbelinck and Mead scaled down the plans for the parking lot to include only 38 spaces to appease abutters, but the opposition continued. 

Eric Goodness, who lives at 189-191 High St., said the parking lot would be “entirely contrary to the intent of the neighborhood.”

“A parking lot in the middle of this historic neighborhood is a sore,” he said. “It’s going to go from one acre of grass and woods to a huge paved parking lot, and that’s a huge change. When we garden and relax on our patios, I don’t think we want to look at a commercial parking lot.”

For the past 10 years, the gravel space behind the funeral home has served as an informal parking lot for guests and family members during calling hours. Hebbelinck noted that the parking area was extended after he demolished a dilapidated barn at the back of the property. 

The site’s previous owner applied for a demolition permit for the barn before selling the property, according to Mead.

Hebbelinck, who has lived in the funeral home building since he took ownership in 2015 and had worked there for years, said that in the past visitors had to park their cars on High Street, which often led to complaints from neighbors. He said that through the paving project, he hoped to make the area safer and more accessible for people during calling hours, especially in the winter. 

“We’re just looking to make it easier for people to be here and say goodbye to their loved ones,” Hebbelinck said. “People wouldn’t have to cross High Street, it would be safer for people to come to the funeral home. They could pull in, walk back out and go on their way. I think I’m trying to make some changes for the better.”

But upon examining the situation, Jennifer Blanchet, the city’s zoning administrator, determined the funeral home had never obtained a permit to park vehicles on the property and that use of the gravel area for parking is in violation of the city zoning ordinance.

In a letter dated May 6, Blanchet asked Hebbelinck to immediately stop using the area for parking.  

During a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting March 26, Mead presented 85 letters of support for the paving project, including some from residents as well as the city’s Fire and Police departments.

But numerous abutters have continued to oppose the project, including Newburyport Preservation Trust member Stephanie Niketic, who argued that a formal parking lot would have a negative impact on the neighborhood’s historic character.

“The Newburyport Preservation Trust has been opposed to this because we feel it’s substantially different to have a parking lot visible from the street and substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood,” Niketic said. 

In an email to The Daily News, City Councilor at-large Joseph Devlin, a Dexter Lane resident, also expressed his opposition to use of the parking lot, but stressed that in this case, he was speaking as a private citizen and abutter, not as a councilor.

“For most of the time I’ve owned my house, their backyard was a quiet, tree lined and grassy space used solely for residential purposes,” Devlin said in the email. “The application proposed putting a similar number of parking spaces as servicing the Pond Street CVS into a historic, residential neighborhood, about 110 feet from the back of my house. ... This process has caused great distress to my family, as it has threatened the home in which we’ve chosen to spend the rest of our lives.”

The zoning board filed a decision to deny the plans for the funeral home’s parking lot, which Mead and the Hebbelincks have since appealed in Massachusetts Land Court.

For now, the Hebbelincks and Mead have proposed an altered plan that would allow the business to build a garage attached to the back of the funeral home, along with a turnaround area that has three parking spaces.

Mead said she and her client are “still fighting for the parking lot,” but hope to move forward with the alternate plan.

To read the minutes for the Zoning Board of Appeals’ meeting March 26, visit https://www.cityofnewburyport.com/sites/newburyportma/files/minutes/zba_minutes_03-26-19.pdf

Staff writer Jack Shea covers Newbury­port City Hall. He can be reached via email at jshea@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.

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