Monthly Archives: June 2006

Infill Proposal at 347 High Street Touches a Nerve

Wow, there has been a lot of concern about the proposal that went in front of the Planning Board about a large infill project at 347 High Street.

The proposed infill project is a 2,800-3,200 square foot Greek Revival replica in front of a very historic Federal House. Apparently 347 High Street was one of the first Federal Houses on High Street (Possibly the first. I believe research is being done on that subject.)

The Newburyport Planning Board very intelligently decided not to give the applicant the go ahead. The Newburyport Planning Board felt that it would set a very bad precedent, building houses in front of existing houses on historic High Street.

As I said in an earlier post, since apparently a fair amount of effort has gone into the preliminary presentation, that it would not be unlikely to see this infill project at 347 High Street go before the Newburyport Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA.) One only hopes that the ZBA is as wise as the Newburyport Planning Board and also says “no.”

One of my concerns is that one of the members of the ZBA has recently sold their house at 325 High Street, thus enabling a 3 house infill project by Jim Mellett of Marlin Properties to take place. It would seem that this would be an enormous conflict of interest on the part of this ZBA member.

At the moment there is “open space” in front of 347 High (as well as on the other side of the historic colonial at 349 High Street.) The proposed dwelling would certainly impact both 349 and 343 High Street (which are both very close to the property line,) as it would the rest of this historic street.

There is also a very large street tree that would be impacted by a proposed driveway.

I know that two members of the Newburyport City Council who are on the Planning and Development Committee, Bruce Vogel and chair of that Committee, Tom Jones feel very strongly that this project should not take place. I cannot imagine that Councilor James Shanely, who is also on that committee, would not feel exactly the same way.

This particular proposal has hit a real nerve within the community of Newburyport. So much so, that it is reported that members of the neighborhood are investigating protecting at least part of the street by looking into forming a Local Historic District (LHD.)

This is music to my ears folks. Newburyport has fought having a Local Historic District for at least 50 years, feeling that it would impinge too greatly on people’s property rights.

But I cannot say it enough. The only sure way to protect the intrinsic character of historic Newburyport is a Local Historic District. (And we are one of the very few municipalities that do not to have a Local Historic District – they are the norm.)

The folks on Fruit Street are working on a Local Historic District for that street. I certainly hope that when that comes in front of the Newburyport City Council for a vote, that the Newburyport City Council will vote “yes.”

The eroding of the intrinsic character of Newburyport, Massachusetts has gone on for too long. I am always heartened when people are moved to take action.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, High Street Bike Lanes FAQ and Responses

At the risk of getting sucked into a whole lot of “Bike Lane taffy” and getting backed into corners and having people scream at me, I thought I would remind folks that there is an exhaustive “High Street Bike Lanes Frequently Asked Questions and Responses” put out by the City of Newburyport.

The “Bike Lane FAQ” can be found on the High Street website, www.historic-highstreet.org. The High Street website link is on the sidebar of the Newburyport Political Blog under “Helpful Links.”

The link to the FAQ can be found on the High Street Home Page as well as under “Reference Documents” (1. High Street’s Master Plan – Planning documents and bike lane FAQs 2004.)

You can also go directly to the FAQ here: Bike Lane FAQ and Responses.

Here are the questions that are asked:

1) What is a bike lane, and who is permitted to use them?

2) Can drivers cross the white line into the bike lane?

3) Can cars or trucks park in the bike lanes?

4) Are the new marked travel lanes wide enough for cars and trucks?

5) Aren’t the bike lanes too close to the traffic?

6) The lanes look funny to me; why are they sometimes out in the middle of the road?

7) Was there a public process the City followed leading up to installing the bike lanes?

8) Was it necessary to stripe the bike lanes on High Street – wasn’t everything fine before?

9) Why don’t the bike lanes continue the whole distance of the street? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

10) Do bicyclists have to use the bike lanes?

11) Why not put all bicyclists on the sidewalk instead of the street?

12) Why not put the bike lane on the inside of the parked cars?

13) How do the bike lanes affect traffic?

14) How do you get bicyclists to obey the laws?

15) How long will the bike lane markings last?

16) Are there any other bike lanes planned in the City?

And here are the answers.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Posted Position for Planning Director, Newburyport, Massachusetts

Many of us have been wondering what Mayor John Moak has in mind for the new Planning Director of Newburyport, Massachusetts, myself very much included.

The job has been posted on the City’s website. The position will close July 10, 2006.

I actually found the posted position kind of reassuring.

In this post on the Newburyport Political Blog, I have put a few of what I would consider interesting parts of the entire job posting for the next Newburyport Planning Director.

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A description of the position includes:

“Duties include preparing long-range conservation and development plan; drafting ordinances; coordinating work with the Mayor and other City departments; conducting research; writing grant applications; advising boards, commissions, committees and elected officials.”

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Under Essential Duties and Responsibilities it says:

“Coordinates amendments to the Master Plan, Zoning Ordinance, Waterfront Strategic Plan, Strategic Land Use Plan, Zoning and Subdivisions Regulations and Zoning Map.

Advises the Mayor, City Council, Planning Board, Zoning Board, staff members and other commissions and committees on land use and planning matters.

Provides information and guidance to the public, regarding pending development projects and property owners interested in developing their land; meets with developers and their representatives to discuss regulatory requirements; ensures that land use factors associated with a potential project are analyzed by a developer at an early stage before major commitments are made.

Works with Federal, State and local agencies to facilitate the development of affordable housing within the City.”

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And under “Knowledge, Skills and Abilities,” there is this:

“Ability to establish and maintain effective working relationships with City officials, contractors, architects, land developers, associates and the general public.”

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I was particularly heartened by “preparing long-range conservation and development plan; drafting ordinances;”… “Coordinates amendments to the Master Plan, Zoning Ordinance, Waterfront Strategic Plan, Strategic Land Use Plan, Zoning and Subdivisions Regulations and Zoning Map” … “Provides information and guidance to the public, regarding pending development projects…”

And it seems to me that Mayor John Moak is interested in a certain managerial style… “Ability to establish and maintain effective working relationships with City officials, contractors, architects, land developers, associates and the general public.”

(If you would like to see the entire posted position see sidebar on the main page of the Newburyport Political Blog for the link to the City of Newburyport’s website. Go to “employment” on the sidebar on the left of that website, press that link and a list of positions will appear. Press “Planning Director.”)

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, A Clarification on the “Infill Ordinance”

Mary,

I would like to correct one comment you made in the June 11 posting titled “Newburyport, The Infill Ordinance”. You stated:
“The revision would have limited how big an addition one could make to a two family home.” The rest of your sentence should have read “without applying to the Planning Board for a Special Permit.”

The Planning Board does not want to restrict unconditionally property owners’ rights to build extensions to their homes. The Planning Board wants to ensure that extensions beyond a certain size get discussed and approved in a public forum, which the Special Permit process provides. Part of the challenge in crafting the amendment to this IX-B zoning ordinance is determining what’s the appropriate number, percentage or ratio to use to trigger an application to the Planning Board.

I want to say one more time: it is not the intent of the Planning Board to arbitrarily or unconditionally limit extensions and additions to residential structures or uses. It’s fine to refer to the IX-B zoning ordinance as the “infill ordinance”. I also hope that residents will learn more about the positive aspects of “infill” so that they can make informed decisions about what they want for our neighborhoods and community…but as you often state yourself Mary, that’s the topic of another posting!

Thank you,
Bonnie Sontag
Newburyport Planning Board member

(Editor’s note: A very big “thank you” to Bonnie Sontag of the Newburyport Planning Board.)

Newburyport, the Infill Ordinance

Infill in Newburyport, Massachusetts is becoming a very hot topic again, as I think it should.

Last year the Newburyport Planning Board brought a zoning ordinance that addressed the issue of “infill” before the Newburyport City Council.

It was actually a revision of an existing zoning law. It was directed specifically at deeded 2 family houses. The revision would have limited how big an addition one could make to a two family home. The idea was to prevent large mega additions that developers in particular and some homeowners take advantage of.

The Newburyport City Council did not pass that zoning amendment.

It is my understanding that the Newburyport Planning Board is preparing another version of this revised zoning law to present to the Newburyport City Council again, possibly as early as this summer.

I would hope that this time around the Newburyport City Council would pass what I am going to call the “Infill Ordinance.”

I would urge everyone who wants to see this zoning amendment come to pass to:

A) Talk to each of the Newburyport City Councilors and see if they have any objections and if they do, find out what they are. I am sure that there are some Newburyport City Councilors that do have objections to the “Infill Ordinance.”

B) Let each of the City Councilors know that you are for the “Infill Ordinance.”

C) Write Letters to the Editor in favor of this zoning change that would help control “infill.” Send them to the Newburyport Daily News, the Newburyport Current and the Undertoad.

D) Send in postings here, to the Newburyport Political Blog.

I believe the argument against the “Infill Ordinance” was that it impinged on people’s property rights. And it unfairly targeted a small segment of the population—owners of two family homes.

The last revision allowed for an extension of 550 square feet for each unit.

I imagine that there would be strong lobbying efforts against the passage of this ordinance by developers in particular. Developers have built huge additions that often dwarf the original property and are often out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.

We as residents of this city can help preserve the character of Newburyport Massachusetts. The passage of this ‘infill ordinance” is one way to help accomplish that goal.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, Infill Proposal at 347 High Street

In the Newburyport Daily News, June 6, 2006, there was an article by Stephanie Chelf on four infill development projects that were going in front of the Newburyport Planning Board the next day. One of those proposed projects was at 347 High Street.

347 High Street is a large historic house in the Northend of Newburyport on the “Ridge” side of the street. The house is set way back from High Street. There is a great deal of land in front of the house. And there is a great deal of land in back of the house as well. If you go to the GIS map at the City’s website (see earlier post) and put in 347 High, you can see just how much land belongs to the property.

347 High Street is also a deeded 2 family house.

Yup, you guessed it, ripe for an infill project in a major way.

The owners of the property (I haven’t seen the minutes of that meeting yet, so I may not get this 100% right) came before the Newburyport Planning Board for preliminary hearing for I believe a special permit.

What the property owners proposed was a “modern” 2,800-3,200 square foot home that would be built in front of the existing house (4,755 square feet) that would be right along High Street. I believe the proposed house was a Greek Revival replica.

It is my understanding that the Newburyport Planning Board was not too impressed with the proposal because it sets such a bad precedence for building houses in front of the “Ridge.” Good for the Newburyport Planning Board.

Now this is just speculation, but I would imagine that since there is so much property involved and it is a deeded 2 family house that the owners probably would not stop at an unfavorable preliminary hearing in front of the Newburyport Planning Board.

I not sure what the next step could be. They might be able to go in front of the Newburyport Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and ask for a variance. My understanding is that the amount of frontage needed is not off by that much.

They could also build in back without any permission from the Planning Board or the ZBA since it is a deeded 2 family and if they kept within the zoning laws, which in this case doesn’t look like it would too difficult.

If I were a neighbor, I would go and talk (make an appointment) to Julie LaBranche at the Planning Office ASAP. Julie is a city planner. The phone number for the Planning Office is 978-465-4400.

I would also be calling my City Councilor Bruce Vogel, who is very much against “infill” and would be very helpful in this situation.

I would also call Tom Jones the chair of the Newburyport City Council Planning and Development Committee. And also give James Shanley a call, who along with Bruce Vogel is also on that same committee. All three of these men are very insightful and sensitive to the issue of “infill” in our city.

I would also be calling Linda Smiley, the chair of the Newburyport Historical Commission, and Linda Miller of the Newburyport Preservation Trust.

And yes, this is where I miss our ousted Planning Director, Nick Cracknell. Because Mr. Cracknell would know what the property owners would likely be able to accomplish. He would have been able to tell the neighbors and the various boards and committees whether it would be wise to compromise on a smaller, less intrusive project that would have less impact on the surrounding houses. Or whether this is an infill project that could be avoided all together. Or what infill project would be the least offensive on this site.

After all, this is High Street, the Grand Dame of Newburyport, the gateway to our historic city.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Available Maps on the Web for Newburyport

I am fascinated by the maps that are available on the Web.

I learned a tremendous amount by looking at the wetlands map from Marlene Schroeder in yesterday’s post.

I also continue to be intrigued by the City of Newburyport’s GIS map, http://gis.nbpt.us (see earlier post.)

You can drag your mouse and make a square around the area of Newburyport that you would like to see and then it zooms and makes a close-up.

Or you can put in the number and street name and get the property.

For example if you put 325 High, you can see the property that Jim Mellett of Marlin Properties bought. To be fair to everyone, the house that is proposed to be demolished is a 1978 ranch, not exactly an historic dwelling. But, you can see on the map that without that piece of property there would be no way Mr. Mellett could ever have done the infill project he is now proposing. (See the Undertoad Blog for details.)

If you put in 75 High, you can see the Wheelwright property. You can get a sense of how large a parcel of land it is. The lot extends all the way back to Greenleaf Street (which becomes Brown Street) and the cemetery.

(Again, I have no idea what is happening to that property, but from the map, one can imagine that developers could do all sorts of things, unfortunately. You can also get a sense of how much land there still is behind the “Ridge,” the area on the upper side of High Street from State Street to about Lime Street. Not to mention in front of the Ridge!)

There are also other kinds of maps online. The links are at:
http://www.mass.gov/mgis/mapping.htm

There are maps for:

Open Space
Wetlands
Priority and Estimated Habitats-Endangered Species
Biodiversity Days Maps
Areas of Critical Environmental Concern
Community Preservation Viewer
An aerial map in color
An aerial map in black and white

At the bottom there is a link that says “MassGIS recommends these other online mapping sites!” And there are some very interesting maps on there too.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, GIS Map, Wetlands and Flooding

Hello Mary,

I noted your discovery of GIS. This is actually a system that has many
layers maintained by the Mass GIS. There is a wetland layer, a priority
habitat layer, potential vernal pool layer, land use layers, layers that
have various economic aspects, transportation layers etc.

The Parker River Clean Water uses most of the maps as does the Newburyport Conservation Commission.

Joe Teixeira, who is a Newburyport Conservation Commission member, is an expert at utilizing this information. He produces most of the maps that the Parker River Clean Water uses.

Below is the link for the map he produced for the CEB website showing the wetlands of the Little River Basin and photos at various locations in the watershed during the recent flooding.

http://www.cebport.org/new_page_1.htm

If you have not seen this map, you might find it interesting.

You can follow the dark blue lines of the largest feeder streams for the
Little River and see how potential projects and their associated storm water
runoff affects the various wetlands.

As you look at the Industrial area you can see all the channelized waterways. Once that area had wetlands resembling the rest of the map…. no wonder it floods in the industrial area.

All those impervious, solid surfaces are like putting a cork in a funnel since all the water flows that direction starting from up near Storey Ave and sheeting across the parking lots of the shopping centers and down the wetlands and feeder streams.

Norbert Carey’s proposed Russell Terrace project will drain here as well.

Any project on the Woodman land will also drain to the feeder stream just to the west of the landfill.

Regards,
Marlene Schroeder, Newburyport

Newburyport, Visual Information for Information on Infill

The other day I discovered (actually someone had told me about this, I just never knew where or how to find it) the map of Newburyport that has all kinds of information on it.

You can pick a spot and zoom in on it. That way you can see all the land in the Historic District that is not developed, but could be developed.

It also gives you all kinds of information on each parcel of land.

It is called the “Geographical Information System” or GIS.

You can get to it by going to the City of Newburyport’s website:
“http://www.cityofnewburyport.com “…going to the section on the side that says “City Online”…and then pressing the link that says “Geographical Information System.”

Or you can go directly to the site, “City of Newburyport WebGIS”
which is: “http://gis.nbpt.us.”

It’s very interesting stuff.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Neighborhood Conservation Districts, A Possible Solution for Newburyport

So many of us are concerned about preserving the vital characteristics of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Mary Harbaugh has been talking to me about Neighborhood Conservation Districts (NCD’s) as a possible solution.

This exerpt explaining about NCD’s was taken from ConcordMA.com Magazine (http://www.concordma.com/magazine/autumn05/ncd.html.)

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“NCD’s help residents preserve the characteristics of their neighborhood that they find the most important to their quality of life and enjoyment of where they live.

Neighbors jointly decide the specifics of their district, including its boundaries, what types of changes they want to have examined by the Town’s Neighborhood Conservation Commission, and what they want to leave up to individual homeowners’ discretion. In this way, an NCD can help guide the way neighborhoods change in the future.

Though in effect in Cambridge for nearly 20 years, NDC’s are still fairly new for the rest of Massachusetts. The Town of Amesbury has recently adopted them.

NCDs can:

Prevent unwanted demolition
Prevent building of a new house or addition totally out of keeping with the neighborhood
Prevent the loss of large trees
Guide change to the exterior of a structure (but only if seen from a public way)
Prevent losing the way of life many enjoy in more modest neighborhoods
Give neighbors a say in how they want their neighborhood to change over time

NCDs do NOT:

Prevent all change
Prevent demolition that makes sense
Prevent all expansion of current houses
Have anything to do with the interior of a house or to the exterior not visible from a public way
Prevent building of new houses in keeping with the neighborhood
Tell you what color you can paint your house!

An NCD is not imposed upon a neighborhood by outsiders — it can be formed only by interested neighbors working together to create a neighborhood study and consensus among their fellows.

If you are interested in seeing a Neighborhood Conservation District bylaw template written by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, go to www.ConcordMA.com/NCD.”

From ConcordMA.com Magazine

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, 30 Marlboro Street

I talked to someone yesterday who said that 30 Marlboro Street (the property extends from Marlboro Street all the way back to Madison Street) is definitely under agreement.

I was not told who the names of the people are that are involved. However, this person did said that they thought the neighbors as well as the residents of Newburyport would be very pleased and relieved. (Hope that’s true.)

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, Biodiversity Day 2006

Hello Everyone – As Scarlet said, “Tomorrow is another day,” and I hope the weather on Sunday, June 4 will allow folks to venture forth and enjoy the many free events being offered for Biodiversity Day 2006. You can see many live, rare species of turtles at the Spencer Peirce Little Farm from 9:30 – Noon or Live Rehabilitated Animals in the afternoon at the Refuge Headquarters and nature walks during the day at the Audubon Center. A tour of the Shellfish plant at the end of Plum Island is being offered at 10:30. All events are free.

I especially want to call attention to David Hall’s offer to have an ongoing self-guided “green tour” of his new building and the other Tannery buildings – including roof top views. The meeting place is by the entrance to his new building – His intern will be there to show folks the way. The self guide sheet can be picked up at the Joppa Audubon Center and at the meeting place as well. As the City moves forward with thoughts about housing and other development, we hope they will keep “green” in mind.

Parker River Clean Water Association wants folks to realize that biodiversity awareness is more than going on nature walks, but is part of the local scene in our buildings and economic activities such as the shellfish plant.

Marlene Schroeder, Newburyport

Parker River Clean Water Association

Newburyport, The Bike Lanes

Ok, this is a subject that I swore I would never talk about on the Newburyport Political Blog. Those of you who know me, know that I like the bike lanes. I’m really tired of people backing me into corners at various stores in town and telling me just how much they hate the bike lanes. It’s gotten really, really old.

But, even I’m wondering what the new mayor is going to do about the bike lanes. I’m sure he doesn’t like being backed into corners and lectured about the subject any more than I do. However, I think I remember in his campaign literature, something about finishing the bike lanes. To be exact it said:

“Newburyport has initiated a number of potentially beneficial projects that have not been successful due, in part, to the lack of effective communication by the city. An example of this is the High Street Bike lane project.”

And we are definitely still in “bike lane no man’s land,” “bike lane limbo.” And even I’m beginning to think we need to do something one way or another.

Now, it will cost a whole lot of money to remove those bike lanes properly, like grinding them down, black paint is just not going to do it. And with that scenario, it’s not exactly going to help the surface of the road which is only 2 inches thick (I’m not sure of the exact depth, but basically it’s a resurfacing job, not a full depth reconstruction.)

Of course the other thing to do would be to properly finish the job, putting in the rest of the signage (the previous Newburyport City Council voted for this) so that people know what to do. I think putting in the textured crosswalks that look like brick and planting a few trees, part of the High Street Master Plan, would be a good thing too. (And starting to put in the brick sidewalks, if we ever get more funding for the High Street Master Plan, would be great.)

It’s time for Mayor John Moak to do something about the bike lanes. And I’ll be interested in what he decides to do.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport

Newburyport, The Planning Office is Still Very Much in Business

Hello Mary,

As City Planner, my job is to provide technical and administrative support to the Newburyport Planning Board and the Newburyport Zoning Board of Appeals (and other Boards, Commissions and Committees), to comment on applications and proposals presented to these Boards, and to assist the public in general. Nick Cracknell may not be Planning Director any longer (yes, we do miss him), but the Planning Office is still in the business of planning these days, and I welcome anyone who has questions about Planning issues in Newburyport to call, drop by or email me at any time.

Thank you,
Julie LaBranche

Julie LaBranche
City Planner
Planning Office, City of Newburyport
City Hall, 60 Pleasant Street
Newburyport, MA 01950
phone: 978/465-4400
fax: 978/465-4452
JLaBranche@CityofNewburyport.com

(Editor’s Note: In a previous post I had spelled Julie’s last name as LaBlanche. Julie’s last name is spelled LaBranche.)

Newburyport, What We Can Do About In-fill

You asked what can be done to protect neighborhoods from over development and projects out of scale and character with the existing neighborhood? Well, first a foremost we need to amend the current zoning laws.

During the 1970′s when the City adopted residential zoning, it made all the old city multi- family. To the west of High Street was zoned two family (R2) and to the east of High Street was zoned three or more family (R3). This blanket zoning is at the root of all the in-fill projects we’re seeing. It actually encourages and makes it very easy for developers to fill in our neighborhoods.

During 2005 the Planning Board began to write amendments to the existing zoning laws. All zoning amendments must conform to MA State Statutes and they must be approved by a two third majority of the City Council.

The City Council passed an amendment (6-C) to the R2 and R3 zoning laws, which requires “site plan review” of any proposed in-fill project intended for the front, back or side yard of an existing house. Site plan review includes a public hearing before the Planning Board where the public can participate.

Unfortunately, the City Council blocked a similar and very important amendment to part of the R3 zoning laws.

This specific amendment is called IXB-3. It addresses half houses or two family houses built on non-conforming lots. A non-conforming lot is either too small overall, or has insufficient frontage, and therefore does not fit into the City’s zoning code.

R3 half houses built on non-conforming lots are popular with developers because these houses are unregulated. The result has been that huge additions have been built onto such homes, additions that dwarf the other independently owned half-house, and appear totally out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood. An example of such a huge IXB-3 addition is near the foot of Forester Street.

The Planning Board is presently writing a new IXB-3 that will limit the size of such additions unless a special permit is granted. A special permit is given, or not given, after a public hearing process, during which neighbors have the opportunity to question, comment or object. Presently a neighbor of a IXB-3 house has no right to protest any huge addition or even to know it will be built before it is already under construction.

So in response to your question “What now?” We would encourage people to contact members of the Newburyport City Council. Let them know that you would like them to encourage, support and vote in favor of the IXB-3 zoning amendment.

Nick Cracknell championed this amendment in 2005. In his absence let’s see what we can do to get IXB-3 approved – this time around.

Mary Haslinger, Newburyport
Allyson Lawless, Newburyport