Local Historic District Advocacy: Still On-Board

The trolley is still full of supporters, but has not yet reached its destination.The NPT continues to support the establishment of a Local Historic District in Newburyport as a proven way to ensure preservation of individual neighborhood streetscapes as well as our more high-profile architectural gems. Newburyport's distinctive, authentic architectural and historical character draws people here to live, work, and play, and sustains the city’s economic vitality. This Local Historic District Advocacy Page remains as an information source about the procedure to establish an LHD, and as an overview of the 2007-2012 work by Newburyport's appointed Local Historic District Study Committee.


What is a Local Historic District?

A Local Historic District is a specifically-designated area deemed historically or architecturally significant that is protected by ordinance from changes that would negatively impact that area's historic character. In Massachusetts, all LHD ordinances and restrictions within are not the same, since they are crafted by local residents with local conditions in mind, but still according to state procedure. An LHD ordinance complements local zoning laws to protect distinctive architectural and streetscape features that contribute to city/town/neighborhood character.

(Local Historic Districts are distinct from federal historic districts, which are placed on the National Register of Historic Places under the purview of the National Park Service. In Newburyport, its National Register Historic District, established in 1984, is the largest in Massachusetts, extending from Joppa in the South End to Atkinson Common in the North End, and encompassing over 2900 structures. A federal historic district, however, is protected only from demolition from federally contracted projects.)

In Massachusetts, once an LHD is established, the ordinance is administered by an appointed committee of local residents that reviews applications for certain changes to assure they will not adversely impact a district's historical character.

The creation of an LHD is a proven approach to preservation for cities, towns, and neighborhoods that rely on their historical character to maintain a vibrant economy and uphold property values. There are over 2300 Local Historic Districts in the United States, with 220 of them in Massachusetts. Newburyport already has one, the Fruit Street Historic District, established in 2007.

For more general background on Local Historic Districts, visit the web site maintained by the National Park Service, Working on the Past in Local Historic Districts. This site was prepared expressly for property owners, district commissioners, architects, and developers.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission explains the difference between a National Register District and a Local Hisgtoric District in its brochure, There's a Difference: Understanding National Register Districts and Local Historic Districts. 

Why Newburyport needs an LHD

Newburyport residents cherish their neighborhoods, and homeowners in every corner of the city realize that our architectural riches in the downtown area and along High Street draw people to Newburyport --- a draw that in large part sustains our local economy. Yet our city continues to lose historic properties to tear-downs, oversized additions, or incompatible new construction. It happens despite existing zoning laws, as the potential for profit through infill or tear-down justifies even the most costly appeals of zoning board denials. Newburyport needs an LHD for the long-term protection of our greatest assets: our remaining stock of significant period architecture ... and the distinctive neighborhoods we love. The LHD proposed in 2012 encompassed 794 buildings in the downtown from Federal Street to Winter Street, plus the entire length of High Street.

Supporters of Local Historic Districts cite reasons ranging from the desire to preserve material evidence of venerable structures and historic authenticity, to the desire to preserve the ephemeral and unquantifiable soul, essence, or ambiance of our streetscapes. Supporters often cite admiration for the craftsmanship of the past, preference for wood over plastic, and love of a certain period style as reasons for supporting an LHD.

But while intrinsic historic value, aesthetic preference, and undefinable atmosphere are of purely subjective value to some, it should be abundantly clear to all that the long-term future stability of Newburyport's economy --- in addition to the maintenance of its character and quality of life --- depends on the attentive preservation of its notable stock of early American domestic architecture. The time for an LHD in Newburyport is long overdue.

For a brief overview of how Newburyport arrived at its present state of preservation, see our Newburyport History page.

How is a Local Historic District accomplished?

In Massachusetts, strict guidelines are in place for the step-by-step process of establishing a Local Historic District. In Newburyport in 2007, in response to broad citizen interest, then-Mayor John Moak appointed a volunteer Historic District Study Committee of city residents to look into the establishment of an LHD in Newburyport according to the state guidelines. City records indicate the committee has held over 60 posted public meetings over the past four years. In addition to study of the subject, this committee conducted a citywide survey of property owners to ascertain opinions about an LHD. The results, compiled and analyzed in 2008, were used to guide the crafting of an ordinance that would be a suitable fit for Newburyport. 

(The resulting proposed ordinance incorporated minimally restrictive guidelines that applied only to exterior alterations visible from a public way. Exempt from review were paint color, landscaping, and alterations to structures built before 1930. Read the 2012 proposed ordinance and guidelines here.) 

The required preliminary report was filed with the Massachusetts Historical Commission in August 2011. This report included the draft ordinance (with implementation details), the guidelines, and district map. In September and October 2011, two public informational meetings were held, one in the South End, and one in the North End. In March 2012, two more informational meetings on successive weeks at Newburyport City Hall addressed questions from the public about the proposed LHD. In response to the public input, the LHD Study Committee reduced the size of the district before presenting the ordinance in its final form, first to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and then to the Newburyport City Council. Public hearings followed, with citizens heard on both sides of the issue. Ultimately, in late 2012, the proposed ordinance --- even in its extremely modified form --- did not achieve the required super-majority vote (8 of 11 councilors) for adoption.

For comprehensive information about procedure, read Establishing Local Historic Districts,a 68-page guide prepared by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

LHD Advocacy: What YOU can do to make the LHD a reality

If preservation of our authentic architectural assets is important to you, it's time to speak up for Newburyport. The procedure for establishing an LHD in Massachusetts, even after a new study and newly-crafted ordinance, will require a super-majority vote (8 of 11) of the Newburyport City Council. Advocates both pro and con can hyperventilate on the issue, but ultimately it is the City Council vote that counts. By extension, then, expressing your opinion to your ward and at-large councilors is important. By further extension, choosing your City Councilors at the ballot box is vitally important.

Sign petitions. When the opportunity arises, make sure to sign hard-copy paper petitions and online petitions in support of preservation initiatives.

Attend informational forums and official public meetings. If you support the preservation of the city's historic character, attend relevant meetings so you will be as informed as possible.  It is important that reasoned voices are heard above the noisy chatter of misinformation.

Write letters to the editor of local publications. Public discussion can get spirited, but if you are in favor of preservation initiatives like the LHD or a demolition delay ordinance with real teeth, add your voice to the chorus. For letters to the Newburyport Daily News: Letter-to-the-Editor, 23 Liberty Street, Newburyport, MA 01950; Merrily Buchs, News Editor: ndnnews@newburyportnews.com. For letters to the Newburyport Current: Letters-to-the-Editor, Newburyport Current, 75 Sylvan Street, Danvers, MA 01923; newburyport@wickedlocal.com.

Talk to your neighbors. Chances are, your neighbors appreciate your neighborhood's distinctive ambiance just like you do, but perhaps they are new in town or have not kept up on preservation issues. Let them know about public meetings and informational resources like this web site.

LHD opposition

There are over 2300 LHDs in the U.S., and over 200 in Massachusetts, so Newburyport is not the first place that has heard all the predictable opposing arguments. Some of the arguments against the LHD are knee-jerk reactions based on misinformation or misconception, while some arguments are based on valid reservations.

Property rights. The most common reflexive opposition invokes the presumed unassailable sanctity of "property rights." There are those who believe property rights are more important than anything else. But property rights have long been limited by government’s legitimate concern for protecting the rights of others and the public interest.

"We've done fine without an LHD." Another common counter-argument is "We've done fine for years. We've got zoning. We don't need an LHD." Please refer to the Newburyport History page for a summary of how the city arrived at its present state of preservation. Until the 1970s, most of the oldest homes in our modest residential neighborhoods survived by happy accident, not by proactive preservation. Economically, Newburyport was certainly not "doing fine" at mid-20th century. The very reclamation of neglected, distressed, or dilapidated properties in the 1970s-80s --- many achieved by the inspired sweat-equity of ordinary folks (and many of these homes ironically outside the LHD proposed in 2012) --- raised property values and consequently attracted investors for whom architectural integrity was far below profit on the priority list. Since that time our stock of authentic architecture has dwindled, through tear-downs, ill-conceived "restorations," and insensitive additions. Neighborhood streetscapes have been permanently altered by lot-crowding and infill as developers seek maximum return. All this has occurred in spite of zoning laws, and has been to the detriment of the historic character upon which the Newburyport renaissance was based. Furthermore, the 1971 HUD restrictions that protected the downtown renewal area expired in 2005. Newburyport is not "doing fine" without an LHD --- its authenticity is being diminished and its historic character is endangered.

Links of LHD interest


Newburyport Historical Commission. The Newburyport Historical Commission is an appointed body of the city government that serves to protect, preserve, and promote the city's historic structures, neighborhoods, and landscapes. The all-volunteer seven-member commission reviews applications filed under the city's Demolition Delay Ordinance, serves as a local advisory group to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and currently holds preservation restrictions on seven Newburyport properties. The commission's web site includes agendas, minutes of past meetings, text of the Demolition Delay Ordinance, and numerous links of preservation interest to owners of older homes.

Fruit Street (Newburyport) Local Historic District.  The Fruit Street Historic District was established in 2007. The district's page on the City of Newburyport web site includes and introduction, photo gallery of properties, text of the historic district ordinance, and meeting agendas & minutes.

Historic High Street. Historic High Street is a private web site established to advocate for the long-term preservation of the architectural and horticultural character of High Street.

Newburyport Preservation Trust. (You've already found us! We're right here!) The Newburyport Preservation Trust web site includes information about NPT programs, projects, and membership, and also functions as a gateway to information on local history, architecture, and preservation.

Massachusetts Historical Commission. The Massachusetts Historical Commission page is replete with links to programs, events, and publications related to history, historic preservation, archaeology, and more. Established by the state legislature in 1963 to identify, evaluate, and protect important historical and archaeological assets in Massachusetts, the commission consists of 17 members appointed from various disciplines. The commission's professional staff includes historians, architects, archaeologists, geographers, and preservation planners.

National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private, non-profit membership organization dedicated to saving historic places and revitalizing America's communities. Founded in 1949, the 200,000-member organization provides leadership, education, advocacy, and resources to protect historic structures, and administers 29 historic sites.

Publications & Databases

City of Newburyport Historic Preservation Plan (1991). The city's Historic Preservation Plan was completed in 1991. The findings and recommendations of the plan were included in the city's still-current Master Plan of 2001.

City of Newburyport Master Plan (2001). The city's Master Plan includes multiple references to and recommendations for a Local Historic District.

Newburyport National Register Historic District. This site holds a selection of individual property data sheets compiled in 1984 for Newburyport's National Historic District inventory. Streets are listed alphabetically, with properties listed in numerical order by address. (N.B.: Not all data sheets are shown. Hard copy binders of all data sheets and photos can be viewed at the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.) The web site includes data sheets on special districts within the National Register District: Chestnut Street Victorian Residential District, Fruit Street Historic District, High Street Historic District, Joppa Historic District, Merrimac Street Shipbuilding District, Ocean Mills Historic District, Pleasant Street Industrial District, South End Historic District, and Washington Street Historic District. The same information is accessible through the City of Newburyport web site here.

Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Plan 2011-2015 (58-page downloadable PDF file from the Massachusetts Historical Commission)

Economic Impacts of Historic Preservation in Massachusetts - Executive Summary.(11-page downloadable PDF file from the Massachusetts Historical Commission)

There's a Difference: Understanding National Register Districts and Local Historic Districts. (Downloadable PDF brochure from the Massachusetts Historical Commission)

Recommended Reading & Viewing

The Politics of Local Historic Districts - A Primer for Grassroots Preservation, by Bill Schmickle. (2006). This book has become the standard guide for those "in the trenches" working toward the establishment of an LHD. In 2018 this author added another decade's worth of insights to two additional books on the subject, Preservation Politics: Keeping Historic Districts Vital, and The Historic District Action Guide.

A Port in Progress (2007). Between March and November 2007 the Newburyport Daily News published a 37-part series of articles on Newburyport's 1970s renewal entitled "A Port in Progress." The series included over 200 photos. The link above is to a list of 28 articles in the series. A good place to begin is the introductory article by Daily News editor John Macone.  (Since the articles in the archive are not in chronological order and do not include all the photos, those interested may want to consult the hardbound book of the same name published by the Daily News in 2008 and available at the Newburyport Public Library.)

A Measure of Change, by Lawrence Rosenblum (1975). [] This award-winning video is a must-see for every new arrival to Newburyport, and for those who may have forgotten the 1960s-70s. In just 29 minutes, the documentary examines the landmark decision to use historic preservation principles for the first time in federal HUD urban renewal projects. Temporarily unavailable.

LHD Advocacy Blogs

The following Newburyport-based bloggers and preservation advocates keep a watchful eye out for Newburyport's future, and feature frequent preservation advocacy. Both blogs are always timely reading, and the searchable blog archives offer plenty of information and photos for preservation interests.

The Newburyport Blog.

P. Preservationist a.k.a. Brick and Tree


Photo credit: Market Square trolley photo used by permission of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

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