Newburyport, Massachusetts, the Infill Ordinance

No matter who ends up running in the special election for the Ward 1 Council seat, it raises the question of what I call the “Infill Ordinance,” although that is not its specific title.

I went down to the Newbuyrport Planning Office to get a copy of the Infill Ordinance, which is really a revision of a zoning law, and Nick Cracknell, Newburyport’s Planning Director, happened to be there and gave me a crash course in Newburyport zoning. What I came away with was that zoning in Newburyport, Massachusetts is very complicated and I’m sure glad that we have experts. I think I quipped to the person who was scheduled to meet Mr. Cracknell that I was “getting a Ph.D.”

(And btw, I was so busy trying to learn about the complex zoning laws around this one particular issue that I didn’t get a chance to ask a lot of the questions I wanted to ask, like “what the heck is going on?” My golden opportunity and rats, I missed it.)

I have not gone back and looked at all the periodicals to research why this particular amendment to the zoning law was voted down, but what I remember (and if I’m wrong, please email me or call me or send in a post and please let me know) is that the objection was that it infringed on people’s property rights and that it discriminated against a very small portion of the population–those who owned two family homes.

While I was getting my crash course in Newburyport zoning, I could actually see how one could come to those conclusions.

BUT, I think the purpose of the this particular zoning amendment was not to make it difficult for your average homeowner who wants to expand their kitchen, master bedroom or whatever. It was to address developers who are buying two family homes in Newburyport’s Historic District (btw this is very different from a Local Historic District) and building in a manner that is not in keeping with the community.

As I understand it, the Newburyport Zoning Board of Appeals and the Newburyport Planning Board are very sympathetic to homeowners who need to expand in a reasonable way and they don’t want to be swamped with a huge amount of applications.

And what the City of Newburyport does want, is to be able to have a chance to have a dialogue with a developer who wants to radically change the look of a property, to make sure that there could be the most constructive solution possible.

An example would be the project in my own neighborhood (see earlier post.) The proposal that the developer came up with did not conform to the zoning laws. This gave both the City of Newburyport and the neighborhood a chance to have a dialogue with the developer. The developer made money and the neighborhood was happy. My understanding is that this particular zoning amendment would give the citizens of Newburyport the same opportunity when a developer comes into their neighborhood.

For me this would be an example of “smart growth.” I don’t know if the Mayor and the Newburyport City Council would like to revisit this issue, but I still think it is enormously important to how Newburyport’s Historic District will evolve over the years.

Mary Eaton, Newburyport