Newburyport, the Central Waterfont, the Task Force

Oy Veh…the article in today’s Newburyport Daily News, Thursday, June 29, 2006 on Mayor John Moak’s task force on the future of Newburyport’s Waterfront.

I hate it when all those red flags are actually red flags (see earlier post.)

Yup, this does appear to be a vehicle to further the Mayor’s agenda for Newburyport’s Waterfront (i.e. paving it over.) Sigh.

Yes, the initial results of the survey are in (the final results should be in by the end of July), guess what? “36 percent in support of a larger park with parking reduced to about 100 spaces. An additional 44 percent supported expansion of the park with about 200 parking spaces remaining. About 10 percent support all parking.”

You can bet your bottom dollar that this was absolutely not what Mayor John Moak had in mind (only 10 percent support all parking,) so yes, voila the “task force.”

The article in the Newburyport Daily News says, “Moak also reiterated his waterfront goal to primarily keep parking. To meet downtown parking demands, Moak said, the city needs to keep all spaces in the west parking lot and three-quarters of the parking in the east lot.”

And apparently the argument for the “original purpose of urban renewal” is being touted as the excuse for not heeding the results of the Waterfront survey.

To quote attorney William Harris who is serving as a citizen representative along with former Mayor Byron Matthews (see earlier post.)

“The solution should reflect the original purpose of urban renewal, Harris said, which was to support a vibrant business district.

‘If we don’t have a central waterfront that supports the central business district, then we failed the urban renewal plan.’ ”

Oy Veh…I do not know what we as citizens do when the Mayor of Newburyport makes such an obvious and blatant circumvention of the democratic process.

Mary Eaton,

Newburyport, Good, Bad Infill

So I’ve been thinking for me, what would constitute good or bad infill?

I walk all over Newburyport, especially the South End, and there are examples of infill everywhere. You can see the different additions and alterations that people have made over the years and centuries to different houses, and I for the most part, I like them, because they tell the story of the people who not only lived there, but who have lived in the City of Newburyport.

You can tell when someone needed a mudroom or often an addition on the back for a kitchen.

I know the house that I lived in when I first lived here had two additions put on sometime during its lifetime. One, a kitchen at the back and a sunroom that was put in on the North side of the house for some reason. Why a sunroom on the North side of a house who knows, except that that’s where they must have felt they had the most room.

And, it was a Victorian replica of a Greek Revival house, tin ceilings and all. I loved it.

And at one point in the neighborhood where I live bay windows must have been all the rage. There’s even a very old colonial with a bay window. For me it all adds to the “patina” of the City.

So when does infill, additions alterations become “bad” infill. Well quite aside from the density and added mass and bulk thing…I think for me infill crosses the line when it overwhelms or obliterates the story of the people who have gone before. No matter what their story was, good, bad or indifferent, it is still part of Newburyport’s story.

When the citizen’s of Newburyport fought so hard to save High Street, they wanted to keep the “patina” of the road and the shape of the road because it told the story of all the people who have come before us.

So I think that’s why in part I have such a visceral reaction when someone demolishes a home and puts a mega mansion up in its place. It seems to dishonor the past. Or when an addition to an existing home totally overwhelms the existing house and is out of character with the neighborhood, it seems to disrespect the people who have lived here before us.

It’s why (not to harp on this one more time, but to harp on this one more time) I have such difficulty with the Five Cents Savings Bank demolishing One Temple Street. It wiped out the story of all kinds of amazing human beings.

So I think that the emotional “trigger point” for me is when a project doesn’t add to Newburyport’s story, but demolishes or overpowers that story. Because I think every story, no matter how small or how big, is part of the whole. And it would be a good idea, in my mind, if each piece gradually added to what would ideally be the organic and intrinsic growth of our small city.

Mary Eaton

The Newburyport Political Blog –

When I first started the Newburyport Political Blog back on January 1, 2006, I had no idea what would happen. I had no idea if I would even blog for more than a few weeks or even a few days.

However, it has been almost 6 months and so far there appears to be stuff to blog about. And despite a few ups and downs, I’ve really enjoyed the experience.

I have decided to implement two things.

1) Although this is a “labor of love,” ok it may not be a “labor of
love,” it may be more like a “labor of enjoyment,” I’ve decided to
put some ads on the Newburyport Political Blog for obvious reasons.

2) I’ve created a web address that that is easier to remember. It is:

This is what is actually called a “forward” or a “redirect.” If you put in or they will both send you to the main Newburyport Political Blog page. My hope is this will make it easier to find the Newburyport Political Blog.

I have also put the “forward” link on the side of the Newburyport Political Blog to make it easy to remember.

And thank you all out there in web-land for reading and contributing, I very much appreciate it.

All the best,
Mary Eaton
Editor of the Newburyport Political Blog

Newburyport, a Clarification – Ordinance and Special Permit

Well, it’s a good thing there is a disclaimer on the “Guidelines” page of the Newburyport Political Blog. Good grief.

I think that I’ve always said I’m on a learning curve here and that I will and have made lots of mistakes.

Well, a clarification on the “Special Permit” thing and the Towle Overlay District thing is in order. I’m pretty sure that I have this straight (zoning is very complicated.)

This is how I now understand it. The Towle Overlay District is an “Ordinance” not a “Special Permit.” It is an actual change to the Newburyport zoning laws. That is why it was voted on and passed by the Newburyport City Council. It is called (I believe) the “Towle Complex Redevelopment Overlay District” or TCROD – I’m just going to call it the “Towle Overlay District.”

I believe a formal application for a “Special Permit” needs to be filed in order to be able to apply the “Towle Overlay District.”

And when I wrote the post, it was my understanding that no formal application had yet been made.

The Towle Overlay District was created to help create the best possible project for the City of Newburyport. However, if the property was sold, the new buyer could build within the existing zoning laws, “by-right” and not use the Towle Overlay District at all. Hopefully that is never going to happen.

I very much hope that I got this clarification right.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

(Editor’s note: To make it easier to find the Newburyport Political Blog I have created a web address that will forward you to the main page of the blog. Hopefully it will be easy to remember. It is I’ve also put the link at the side of the blog. More on this in a later post.)

Special Permits, Newburyport and the Infill Ordinance

There appears to be some confusion about my recent post on “Special Permits.” It is my understanding that some people might feel that I could have been implying that anyone could be granted a Special Permit by the Newburyport Planning Board, no problemo…

Well, that’s not what I was trying to say at all, so let me try and clarify here.

What I had in the back of my mind was the revision of the zoning ordinance that I keep calling the “Infill Ordinance,” that the Newburyport Planning Board is hoping to reintroduce to residents and the Newburyport City Council.

When it was introduce the last time it was not passed by the Newburyport City Council. I am very much in favor of this new revision or the “Infill Ordinance” and I would like to see it get passed by the Newburyport City Council this time around.

Last time, the revision to the ordinance concerned two family houses. Each side was allowed a 550 square foot addition before requiring a special permit.

As I understood it, this was to insure that developers didn’t take advantage of two family homes by building a large addition that was out of scale with the existing home and the neighborhood at large. The project on Water Street is an excellent example.

It was not meant to discourage your average homeowner from a reasonable addition or alteration.

However, I think that a lot of people understood the new amendment to the zoning law to mean that if you wanted to have an addition or alteration that was more than 550 square feet, you were not allowed to do so.

What I was trying to explain in the recent post was that for the average homeowner, who owned a two family house and wanted to build something larger than 550 square feet, that they could still do that. That going in front of the Newburyport Planning Board and discussing a special permit should not discourage people from going ahead with their plans. That the Newburyport Planning Board was very reasonable when it came to reasonable requests and there was no reason for your average resident to be intimidated.

And it is my opinion that he Newburyport Planning Board does not give every developer the “go ahead,” no questions asked — quite to the contrary. I feel that the Newburyport Planning Board is very conscientious when it comes to development in Newburyport, Massachusetts. After all it is the Newburyport Planning Board that has and is still trying to change the existing zoning laws to try and prevent inappropriate development in Newburyport from happening.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, Massachusetts, Agendas and Minutes

I would like to thank the mystery person who puts the Agendas and Minutes (especially the Agendas and Minutes of the Newburyport Planning Board, the Newburyport Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) too) on the website of the City of Newburyport.

And also a big thank you to those people who make sure this wonderful mystery person gets those minutes and agendas.

It makes for a transparent process and an informed public (that is if they want to be informed.)

You can find the Minutes and Agendas by going to the website of the City of Newburyport (that link is on the side of the Newburyport Political Blog.) On the sidebar to the left on the City’s website press “Boards & Comm’s.” There is a a link that says “Newburyport Planning Board Meeting Minutes, Agendas & Public Hearing Notices.” Press on that link.

Then there will be folders for “Agendas,” “Minutes” and one for “Public Hearings.” Press the folder you are interested in. The Minutes or Agendas are listed by years. Press the year that you want. Then there will then be a list of documents. And press the document that you would like to see.

It is a wonderful way to be informed about what happened at a meeting if you are unable to be at the meeting itself.

My understanding is every attempt is made to put up the Agendas before the meetings take place. So, it is also a great way to find out what will be taking place at a Newburyport Planning Board meeting (or a ZBA meeting for that matter.) Especially if there is something that either might pertain to you personally or something that you may be concerned about.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, Special Permits

One of the things I like about blogging the Newburyport Political Blog is that I get to learn about a whole lot of stuff. Take this Special Permit thing. (See all sorts of earlier posts on “Special Permits.”) Who would have ever guessed that I would care about, much less be interested in a Special Permit? Come on, who cares? Special Permits?

Well, now I actually care about Special Permits of all things. Who knew?

Frankly, I thought if you wanted to build something and had to get a “Special Permit,” well, that was the “kiss of death.” Why bother even trying? Why bother going in front of all those scary boards and stuff. Why not just skip the whole thing?

What I’ve learned is those “boards” aren’t actually so scary. The Newburyport Planning Board (that’s where you go and get that Special Permit) isn’t made up of a bunch of zealots who will tear your head off if you go in front of them. No, the Newburyport Planning Board is made up of some very thoughtful, fair human beings (I might even go as far as saying as some of them might just be downright kind.) They are just regular folks who give an incredible amount of time and energy to the community and are not power hungry, control freaks.

Three of the members of the Newburyport Planning Board have actually sent in posts to the Newburyport Political Blog. And if you use the search box on the side of the blog, you can find them. (Put in “Newburyport Planning Board member.”)

One of the interesting tidbits I’ve learned about a Special Permit is that just because a Special Permit is granted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been used.

Someone might get a Special Permit and then not use it right away. How about that one for weird?

For example, it is my understanding that no application has been formally filed for the Zoning Overlay for the Towle Property (see earlier post.) And this was a major Special Permit. This Special Permit for a Zoning Overlay was so special that it had to be passed by the Newburyport City Council. And they passed it too. Happily, no less.

So, this could mean that someone else could come in and buy that property and not use that Special Permit for the Towle Zoning Overlay at all.

Wow. I thought that one was really interesting.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, Wetlands

Well, I’m learning about wetlands. I’ll have to admit, even though I’m a Liberal Democrat, I’ve never quite gotten quite what all the whoop-la was about wetlands thing until recently.

My wetlands learning curve has been due in great part to people who one way or another have been connected to the Newburyport Political Blog. So a big “thank you” to all of you out there in web-land that have added to my wetlands education.

Basically, what I now get is that wetlands are like a big sponge that absorbs the water that would otherwise flood us.

So in the big flood this spring, Newburyport, even though it is on the Merrimac River, was largely sparred the enormous damage that other communities further up the river incurred. It was spared because of our marshes/wetlands. All that water spread out instead of up and was absorbed by all those marshy, wetland bogs.

So now I’m even a bigger fan of marshes than I was before. And as a painter, I’m a very, very big fan of Newburyport’s marshes.

So, the wetlands around the Little River, down around Low Street, act like a sponge during large, flooding rains. Ok, now I’m beginning to get that.

I’m also beginning to get that it’s not a good idea to fill those wetland/sponges up with cement, because then they cannot absorb all that water anymore. And that it’s also not a good idea to have a whole lot of cement around those wetlands, because all those hard surfaces act like a funnel, and it’s just too much water for the wetland/sponges to absorb.

And if we fill those wetland/sponges up with cement or have too much cement around them that means among other things that Newburyport’s Industrial Park will flood on a regular basis. And if Newburyport’s Industrial Park floods on a regular basis, no one is going to want to have a business there (who could blame them.) And if no one wants to have a business there, then we Newburyporters are in big trouble, because we need those businesses to help our tax base.

So, for a whole lot of reasons, including the wetland/sponge reason, it would be a really, really bad idea to have that large 40B project on the Woodman Property on Low Street.

So, now I’m beginning to get it, that preserving Open Space isn’t just for the “touchy-feely,” “crunchy-granola” folks. Preserving Open Space, especially around the Little River, is important to everyone. Including those folks who very much want to keep business in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

And one of the things that really helped me is the link which shows the Little River Basin during the recent floods. As Marlene Schroeder, who sent in the link in to me said, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” If you haven’t seen this map, I think it’s really, really interesting.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

(Editor’s Note: Unfortunately the very excellent site is no longer up.)

Newburyport, Nice Rumor, the Wheelwright House Property

I heard a nice rumor. (I much prefer nice rumors to lousy ones.) It was a nice rumor about the Wheelwright House Property that is for sale along High Street in Newburyport, Massachusetts. This is one of the properties that so many people have been beside themselves about, so I sure do hope this nice rumor is true.

The rumor that I heard would be that residents would “be pleased” at the outcome of this sale. How about that one.

(Although the house was still “for sale” in the Newburyport MLS listings when I recently checked? ) (When I did check the Newburyport MLS listings I was amazed at how many houses there are over a million dollars, I mean not 1.1 million, but more like 1.6, million-that’s a lotta dough folks, but I digress…)

When I heard this lovely rumor, it at the very least gave me a glimmer of hope, a feeling of mild relief. (When I’ll really be relieved is when we all find out if it is actually true or not.)

That is one huge piece of property that could really be butchered and destroyed by the wrong person. It could really destroy the Ridge (the elevated section of High Street, between State Street and Lime Street,) it could really destroy the historic roadway and it could really do major damage to our small historic seaport city.

I hope this lovely rumor is true. I really, really, really want to “be pleased” by this one.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, Task Force for the Waterfront

Oy Vey. How can a blogger not blog on the story in today’s Newburyport Daily News, June 20, 2006 on the task force being formed by Mayor John Moak to help decide the most appropriate use of the waterfront property.

A few red flags here.

*The survey from the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority is still being collected. We do not even know the results of the survey yet. And Mr. Moak is on record any number of times as feeling it was “biased,” and taking the position of paving over the entire waterfront.

I am just guessing here, and believe me I do not know, but my guess is that the waterfront survey is not developing the way the Mayor John Moak might have hoped for…i.e. most probably the survey is coming in for half parking, half park or for all park…and my guess would be paving over the entire waterfront is not the overwhelming favorite choice.

*Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a task force after the survey for the Newburyport waterfront was in? A task force to implement what the people have said that they would most prefer?

From what the mayor is quoted as saying in the Newburyport Daily News, apparently not.

*And I’m very suspicious of political task forces. They are often a way to achieve a political agenda that may not be what the people of Newburyport would like. Take Mayor Moak’s task force on the Woodman property. All of a sudden a large 40B project is back in the picture, the Planning Director is kept out of the loop, and the possible solution to have a much smaller project in that area appears to be dismissed.

In my book, political task forces are not a good sign. Sigh.

*We already have the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority who is in charge of that area, why in the world would we need a task force on top of that, unless there is another agenda?

*Ok, Byron Matthew is a member of the task force. Not that Mr. Matthews is not an outstanding citizen, but the residence of Newburyport, Massachusetts made it very clear that they did not want him on the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, and that’s why the Newburyport City Council voted against his nomination on the first reading. So why is Mr. Matthew now on this task force addressing the very same issues.

*And if you really wanted an informed task force, let’s face it, you would ask Mary Lou Supple to be on there, yes?

*And the task force first meeting is June 28, 2006. That is 8 days from now. That’s very, very soon. If it were meeting were let’s say sometime in the beginning of September, when the public had time to respond this idea, it would be less of a red flag in my book.

*And a mater of coming to a “position, a vision,” well that is what the waterfront survey was for. My concern is that this is a way of Mr. Moak implementing his own vision.

For me, there are red flags on this all over the place. Good grief.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

David Hall, Solar Power, Newburyport, Massachusetts

Dear Persons Interested in Solar Powered Electricity,

I am excited to announce we are closer to getting solar power to numerous residential homes around the Newburyport area. There will be two types of systems: a 1kW and a .5kW, both ground mounted. We have been in contact with Solar Market of Arundel, Maine, which is the same company that put the solar panels on The Tannery. The 480 watt (~.5 kW) and the 960 watt (~1 kW) will account for approximately 770 kWh and 1540 kWh respectively of your annual electric bill. This is about 10% of the average American’s annual electric bill.

Our goal is for you to get the most for your money in order to maximize your satisfaction with solar power. So the numbers end up being a total of approximately $4,500 for the 480 watt module and $9,050 for the 960 watt module. These are not including any rebates or incentives. To give you an approximate picture of the rebates and incentives here is what we believe will apply to each module:


480 watt 960 watt
Initial Cost**
$4,500 $9,050
State tax credit of 15% rebate up to $1000
$712 $1000
Federal tax credit of 30% rebate up to $2000
$1,422 $2,000
MTC rebate
$960 $1920

Estimated cost
$1,406 $4,130
There would also be these annual savings:

Renewable Energy Certificate Rebate***
$40 $80

Savings on electricity bill***
$110 $220

Annual savings
$150 $300
** These prices do not include installation and shipping, we do not know those prices at this time.
*** These savings may vary due to varying electricity prices.

We will be holding a meeting on Friday June 23rd at 5:15pm at the offices of Hall and Moskow (Mill#5, The Tannery– under Doherty’s meat market) to execute contracts, fill out applications for rebates, and making an initial payment of 33% of the system cost ($1485 for 480 and $2986.50 for the 960). Checks are to be made out to Solar Market or a credit card can be processed for a fee if preferred. There will be a full refund of the deposit if the application is rejected by MTC. System buyers are ineligible for MTC rebates if the systems are purchased or installed before the application for the rebate is approved, hence the urgency of getting all this paperwork out of the way. Please let us know if you can or cannot attend. Thanks!

David Hall and Rachael Nealer


(Editor’s note: This blog software does not do justice to the chart that was submitted. For a better chart on “Initial Cost,” “Estimated cost” and “Annual Savings” please contact Rachael Nealer at the above email address.)

Questioning the Advantage for Positive Infill for Newburyport, Massachusetts

I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that there could be an advantage for Newburyport, Massachusetts for the idea of “positive infill” as it has been defined in an earlier post. And in particular “increasing the number of units,” especially within Newburyport’s Historic District.

As I am beginning to understand it, infill can be an antidote to “urban sprawl.”

But, in Newburyport we now have the Open Space Residential Development Ordinance (OSRD), the purpose of which is to prevent “urban sprawl” or to quote the Ordinance itself:

“A technique to build residential subdivisions that maximizes the amount of preserved open space and protects local resources while not reducing the number of units built compared to a conventional sub-division.”

(The link to the entire ordinance is under “Helpful Links” at the side of the Newburyport Political Blog.)

I looked up the “Zoning Ordinance of the City of Newburyport” and under the purpose of the Ordinance it lists (among other things) the following:

* “To conserve the value of property, with due consideration for the character of the zones and their peculiar suitability for particular uses.”

* “To lessen congestion in the streets.”

* “To prevent overcrowding of land and to avoid undue concentration of population by regulating the height, number of stories and size of buildings and other structures, the percentage of the area of the lot that may be occupied, the size of the yards, courts, and other open spaces.”

* “To control the density of population by regulating the location and use of buildings, structures and land for trade, industry, residence or other purposes; and the height, size and location of these uses within the limits of the City of Newburyport.”

So it would seem to me that “positive infill” in Newburyport’s Historic District would go against the intent the Zoning Ordinance itself, not by “regulating the height, number of stories and size of building,” but by incrementally increasing an unduly amount of units that in that particular area because:

* It adds to congestion in the streets.

* It creates overcrowding of land.

* It increases the density of population.

* And it could decrease the value of the property within Newburyport’s Historic District and therefore Newburyport as a whole. (For example, if we start destroying High Street with infill in back or in front of those stately mansions, everybody’s property value would decrease, because Newburyport’s historic gateway, a key to its economic value, would at the very least be compromised, if not destroyed.)

And I would also add that “increasing the number of units” would seem to burden existing City services – schools, water and sewer, wear and tear on existing roadways.

And in regard to affordable housing, smaller lot size in this case would not “be reflected in lower costs.” Lots within Newburyport’s Historic District are extremely expensive, making the creation of affordable housing much more difficult in this particular area.

So while I can see where reasons for “positive infill” might apply to other municipalities, especially municipalities whose more urban areas are underutilized, I have a real problem with successfully applying this criteria to Newburyport’s Historic District in particular.

For me this would not be an example of “smart growth,” in fact for me it would be the very antithesis of “smart growth,” because this is an area in my mind that is beyond “dense,” this is an area that is on the verge of a “saturation point.”

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

The Trigger Point for the “Infill Ordinance”

Ok, here’s how I am understanding things.

A “Special Permit” is supposed to benefit the neighbors and residents in general in Newburyport, Massachusetts. (See earlier post on Special Permits.)

And a Special Permit, as I understand it, means that an applicant comes in front of the Newburyport Planning Board to make sure that the project doesn’t “mess up” the City.

So, for this new revisiting of what I am calling the “Infill Ordinance” (the revision of section IXb of the zoning code) wouldn’t it be better to have an early rather than later “trigger point” where people come in for that initial “informal chat” with the Newburyport Planning Board to “test the waters” and make sure everything is A-Ok, as a way of protecting our historic municipality?

That would not preclude a project from taking place and having a “formal” application happen. It would just insure a layer of protection for the historic and intrinsic value of the City of Newburyport in general. To make sure that the project is “compatible in mass, scale or character with the surrounding neighborhood” (from earlier post on Definition of Infill.)

If the proposed application was just fine, then I am supposing that a Special Permit would then be formally granted in a timely manner. If the application was questionable, then the Newburyport Planning Board and the abutters and neighbors could have a discussion on what would be acceptable and appropriate for them and for the City of Newburyport in general.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, In-fill, Special Permits and Amendments to Section IXb of the Zoning Code

Hi Mary,

Thank you for the discussion you are having regarding “in-fill” in Newburyport. The thoughts and ideas about this issue, as perceived from all sides, are interesting and are an important debate that is crucial to the future character of the city.

I would urge your readership to attend the upcoming Planning Board and City Council meetings and public hearings that are discussing amendments to Section IXb of the city zoning code. During these public deliberations, at which time the public has every opportunity to participate in the process, crucial elements to that section of code will be adjusted in ways that directly relate to the “in-fill” concerns that are addressed in some of your articles.

If I may, I would like to make one point about Special Permits (SP). While the definitions you have astutely researched are a great basis for the understanding of what a SP is, we can more directly look at our own Newburyport Zoning Code which establishes the criteria that must be met in order for a SP to be approved by either the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals, (depending on what the SP application is requesting determines who the SP application is heard by). These criteria are well defined within our zoning code and map out exactly what the Special Permit Granting Authorities, (SPGA), must base their decisions on.

Just a quick clarification. In your latest posting the statement is made that, “…a SP is an opportunity to come and chat informally with the Planning Board about making a project more beneficial…”

Actually, the SP process is the FORMAL process through which an applicant comes before the Board and the public to gain a SP for their project, whatever it might be. During this formal process the public has the opportunity to discuss their concerns at length and to hear the deliberations of the Board in direct relation to the submitted application. The “informal” or pre-application process is just what its name denotes. It’s a prospective applicant’s “testing the waters”, if you will, with his/her ideas for a project.

At that time the applicant usually has preliminary plans and is trying to gain very early input from the Board as to whether they should take the next steps, which involve both money and time, in the design phases of their projects. The Planning Board does usually hear public input during these informal discussions and so your point is well taken that these are very important arenas in which the neighbors and others can express their thoughts. The SP process itself however, is a very formal process once an application has been accepted by a Board.

Again, thank you for raising these points and concerns with process and the general future of the city. These are important discussions and I enjoy reading comments from all sides on these issues.

John Skibbee
(Planning Board member)

(Editor’s note: The formal name, “Section IXb of the city zoning code” is what I have been referring to informally in various posts as the “infill ordinance.” And a very big thank you to John Skibbee of the Newburyport Planning Board.)

Newburyport, Massachusetts, Special Permits

From the emails I’ve gotten, the post on the “positive” aspects of infill has really, really upset a whole lot of folks (including me.) Since I had a “heads-up” on this post, I did some research on “Special Permits” which made me feel a whole lot better. I was going to post it tomorrow, but since there seems to be so much distress out there in web-land, I thought it might be a good idea to post it today. So here it is.


This is a learning curve on my part. I have been very unclear on exactly what a “Special Permit” issued by the Planning Board might be.

I found the “Universal Glossary Of Land Use Terms And Phrases” by the Land Use Law Center at Pace University School Of Law. That web link is:

You can also find the “Glossary of Land Use Terms” under “Helpful Links” at the side of the main page of the Newburyport Political Blog.

I figured that the Law Center at Pace University School of Law would probably know what they were talking about. At the very least, give me some guidance about planning and development stuff, including what a “Special Permit” would be.

This what the website has to say:

“Special Use Permit: Special uses are allowed in zoning districts, but only upon the issuance of a special use permit subject to conditions designed to protect surrounding properties and the neighborhood from any possible negative impacts of the permitted use. Also called conditional use permit, special exception permit, and special permit.”

I did check with a member of the Newburyport Planning Board who confirmed that Special Permits are to benefit the abutters and the neighbors.

I think this is a good thing. In fact I think this is a great thing. And now I understand that when people say that “6-C” is a good thing, what they are talking about a “Special Permit.”

So therefore, a Special Permit to build in front of an extremely historic home like 347 High Street, for example, would not benefit either the abutters or the neighbors or even the City of Newburyport as a whole.

So a special permit is an opportunity to come and chat informally with the Newburport Planning Board about making a project more beneficial to the neighbors and to the residents of the City of Newburyport than it would be under the existing zoning laws.

And if a Special Permit is granted, as I understand it, then the applicant does not have to come in front of the Newburyport Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for a variance, if that would have been a necessary step. (“Variance: This is a form of administrative relief that allows property to be used in a way that does not comply with the literal requirements of the zoning ordinance.”…. Pace University School Of Law again.)

So this helps me to understand the planning and development stuff a little bit better.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, A Response to the Idea of Positive Infill

After reading today’s post about the positive benefits of infill I felt compelled to dispute a few of the claims:

1. “When it preserves open space by diverting new construction to small city lots, rather than on unused “suburban” land.”

This sounds great, but the problem people have with this is that it isn’t one home that is being diverted to a smaller city lot, it’s either multiple units or multiple buildings.

2. “In already dense neighborhoods where the new structure fits in with the character of the neighborhood in terms of building separation and mass.”

The key to this statement is “already dense neighborhoods”. By shoehorning in more houses in neighborhoods that are already packed, it harms the neighborhood and the city in general. It increases the parking and traffic problems, and begins to erode whatever buffers neighbors have between them, such as backyards.

3. “When it increases the value of the land to the city or the owner by increasing the number of units on it while still fitting into the character and look of the neighborhood.”

Increasing the value of land to the city and increasing the amount of money that goes into the pocket of the owner by allowing a number of units to be built where there was previously only one is not a positive. First, whatever increased income the city may get is already spent on new services for the new homes and residents (schools, water, trash, etc. etc.) That has been the philosophy of Newburyport for years now, promises of new developments that will bring more money to the city. The reality is that taxes continue to go up, services continue to go down, and development is running wild all over the city. Clearly this doesn’t work. As for the owner, everyone is entitled to make money, and you can’t fault them for that, however, that doesn’t mean it is good for the city to allow an owner to convert a single family home into a huge mess of condo’s or what have you. In regards to the “Character of the neighborhood”, please, take a look at the huge monstrosities on Plummer Avenue, the new plans for High Street, or any of the other major infill projects around town. They don’t fit, they stick out. The true value to this city was it’s small town feel, its character and beauty, all of which are slowly destroyed with each new infill project.

4. “When it permits the building of affordable housing because smaller lot size might be reflected in lower costs.”

Smaller lot size is not reflected with lower costs. A look at any of the infill projects will show you that the prices of those new homes aren’t significantly cheaper than any other existing house for sale. They may be made into condos, however, the price still isn’t really any lower than any other condo in town. These infill projects aren’t affordable housing, unless they are sold at a price that people can afford, not a price that is slightly lower than market value. Infill isn’t going to solve this city’s affordable housing problems unless you force the developers to sell the homes at affordable prices, but no developer is going to sell at those prices unless they can make it up by selling more units at market value. So rather than creating a solution, it creates a problem, and the city will never reach its percentage goal for affordable housing if we trade one affordable unit for a dozen at market price. Claiming that the smaller lot size is going to result in a cheaper home is simply not true and everyone in Newburyport knows that.

Benjamin Laing, Newburyport

Newburyport, How to find out When Pre-Application Hearings Will Take Place

Well, I’m not exactly getting a PhD in all this planning and development stuff, but I am beginning to learn a little bit more.

I never understood about this “pre-application,” informal chat thing with the Newburyport Planning Board, where the neighbors were not informed. And I would like to know when these “informal chats” are going to take place, because a lot could happen at one of these “informal chat” things that an abutter or a resident in general might like to know about.

So my question was how do you know when one of these “informal chats” with the Newburyport Planning Board is going to take place?

Now I’ve learned that the pre-application hearings are placed on the agenda. And the agendas for the Planning Board are posted on the City’s website.

I thought I would have to go into Newburyport City Hall to find out what would be on the agenda, but no, I can do it right here from my trusty computer.

Well, that’s pretty cool.

It is my understanding that most of the time agendas are usually posted the Monday before the Newburyport Planning Board meets. The Planning Board meets on a Wednesday.

It’s also my understanding that there is one librarian in charge of posting the agendas on the City’s website. The very, very small caveat is that if this librarian is out or on vacation the agenda does not get put up on the City’s website right away. Apparently this does not happen very often. (The librarian appears to be on vacation at the moment, that is why the agenda for the last meeting is not up there.)

I also learned that the minutes of the Planning Board meetings also get posted. The minutes are approved at the following meeting and then they are sent to be posted. So that means that it takes 2-3 weeks for the public to see them on the City of Newburyport’s website.

If you would like to see the Newburyport Planning Board agendas or minutes, go to the website for the City of Newburyport. That link is at the side of the main page of the blog under “Helpful Links.” Go to the menu sidebar at the left side of the City’s website and press “Boards & Comm’s.” You will then see a link that says “Newburyport Planning Board Meeting Minutes, Agendas & Public Hearing Notices.” Press on that link.

At the left you will see folders for “Agends,” “Minutes” and one for “Public Hearings.” Press the folder you are interested in. You will then see the Minutes or Agendas listed by years. Press the year that you want. There will then be a list of documents. Press the document that you would like to see.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, Infill, Definition and Positive Impact

Infill is the concept of utilizing for building or similar development purposes, those lots and small parcels of land within the developed areas of the City and surrounded by older neighborhood growth.

In-fill is the development of small open spaces in a manner that is compatible in mass, scale or character with the surrounding neighborhood.

In all instances, infill addresses those lots that already have sufficient City services immediately available to them.

Infill is “positive”:

1) When it preserves open space by diverting new construction to small city lots, rather than on unused “suburban” land.

2) In already dense neighborhoods where the new structure fits in with the character of the neighborhood in terms of building separation and mass.

3) When it increases the value of the land to the city or the owner by increasing the number of units on it while still fitting into the character and look of the neighborhood.

4) When it permits the building of affordable housing because smaller lot size might be reflected in lower costs.

Sue Grolnic, Bonnie Sontag
Newburyport Planning Board

Newburyport, Clarification, 347 High Street, A Pre-Application Hearing

Some of you out there in web-land may be wondering why I keep “harping” on the proposed project at 347 High Street.

One of the reasons obviously is that I think the project would be extremely detrimental to that historic street.

And I am also concerned that this one is not going away.

I am on a definite learning curve here about all this planning and development stuff.

What I have learned is that the applicant came before the Newburyport Planning Board for a “pre-application” discussion. A pre-application discussion does not require a public hearing. It also does not require that the neighbors be notified.

This was an “informal” meeting with the Newburyport Planning Board.

Luckily the neighbors came out and spoke against the project, which is very helpful, if not downright crucial.

The applicant can still (and usually does) come before the Newburyport Planning Board to formally and “officially” apply for a “special permit.”

It is at this point that there is a “public hearing” on the application and the neighbors are “officially” notified.

It is at that point that the neighbors and anyone else who feels strongly that this project should not happen, should come before the Newburyport Planning Board and “officially” make a statement to that effect for the record.

So, the bad news is that for those of us who do not want to see this project happen, basically the applicant had an informal chat with the Newburyport Planning Board to get their input. Nothing “official” took place.

(The Newburyport Planning Board did indicated however that they thought it was a bad idea to put a structure in front of this stately High Street home and that it would set a very bad precedent for the rest of the historic roadway.)

The next move would be for the applicant to make that “official” step, to come in front of the Newburyport Planning Board and apply for a special permit for this structure.

When and if that does happen, I hope all and sundry – neighbors, media etc. will let the public know about that official public hearing. And that people will come out and speak strongly against the project.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

The Wonders of the Newburyport GIS Map

A while ago Marlene Schroeder sent in a very interesting and helpful post about wetlands, flooding and the Newburypor GIS map (link to that interactive map of Newburyport is on the sidebar under “helpful links.”) Since the GIS map is new to me, I didn’t understand what Marlene meant by “layers.”

If you go to the Newburyport GIS map, at the very bottom there is a little horizontal menu. The third button from the left it says “layers.”

Let’s say that you are interested in the infill project that was proposed at 347 High Street. You can check “Search by Address.” Put in 347 High. When the map loads, you can go down to the bottom and press layers. And then you will see this list.

City Border
OpenSpace: Interest Overlay
OpenSpace: Lands
OpenSpace: Chapter 61
Parcel IDs
Parcels Clear
Road Names
Elevation Text
Road Centerline
Rivers & Streams
Fences and Hedges
Parking Lots
Street Trees
Parking Lots
Water Bodies
Parcels – Orthos

Some of these options will already be checked. But you can check the ones that you are interested in. Let’s say you check “Street Trees,” “Driveways” and “Color Aerial Photos.” You then press “Refresh Map” at the bottom of the menu. And voila, you get a revised map that is to your exact specifications.

It’s really quite remarkable.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport