Letter to the editor: Clare Tully

Concerned about impact of proposed hotel on Rockport Village

Tue, 01/21/2020 - 12:30pm

I am writing as a longtime resident of Rockport Village to express concerns regarding the impact that Stuart Smith’s proposed five story 35-room hotel with two restaurants, including an open rooftop bar, will have on parking, safety, traffic and noise levels, as well as its beautiful historic architecture.

Stuart’s proposed hotel development is similar to his 21-room luxury boutique hotel, 16 Bay View in Camden, which also has a large rooftop bar and similar exterior. The big difference is that his Rockport hotel would have 35-rooms, which would make it sixty percent larger than 16 Bay View.

Numerous Rockport residents are concerned that the Town is moving too quickly to approve Stuart’s application for his hotel, without undertaking appropriate due diligence, such as an independent third-party traffic and parking survey by a qualified traffic planner and engineer. The hearings began occurring in the off season and around the holidays which means many full-time and summer residents alike are not even familiar with the Smith hotel, let alone its potential adverse impact on the Village.

Like most other Rockport residents, I am not opposed to the Smith hotel, just its current proposed size and impacts on parking, traffic, and pedestrian safety, as well as the Village’s iconic architecture and quiet beautiful harbor. I admire Stuart’s entrepreneurial skills, civic contributions, and philanthropy. I also appreciate Nina June, 18 Central Oyster Bar and Grill, and Seafolk, of which he is the landlord. These three new restaurants have brought tourist dollars to Rockport, garnered national press coverage and enlivened the downtown year-round. Seafolk in particular has become a favorite local hangout.

These restaurants lack the dedicated off-street parking spaces required though by the parking ordinance. Consequently, they have already impacted the Village’s limited public parking, especially during the summer. Many Rockport residents would disagree with Stuart’s statement that he “never has a problem finding a place to park, even in summer”. Most Rockport residents do not live in walking distance and have to rely on public parking when they drive to the library, Rockport Opera House events, Rockport Marine Park, etc.

The Planning Board wisely decided not to waive the parking ordinance for Stuart’s proposed 35-room hotel. Stuart already owns the parking lot behind it but does not have enough spaces to comply with the approximately 65 spaces it requires for the hotel and its two restaurants. To get around the on-site parking requirement, Stuart has applied to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance which permits the use of remote parking when “off-street parking cannot be provided on the same lot”.  But Stuart already has about 50 parking spaces on the site. Stuart could reduce the size of his hotel so it becomes closer to the size of 16 Bay View. Instead, he wants to build more rooms than he has spaces. The Zoning Board should not let Stuart exploit the variance for this purpose. Zoning must serve the broader interests of the neighborhood and the community at large.

Stuart’s proposed site for remote valet parking, Maine Street Meats is located three quarters of a mile away from the hotel, which means that it would not be “located within a reasonable distance” under the ordinance. Under Stuart’s requested variance, valets would drive guests’ cars up from the back of the hotel, across Central and Main Street, and up the entire length of Pascal Avenue. These streets are already heavily used by drivers as a Camden shortcut to bypass the stop sign at the Stop N Go.

The stretch of the road that spans from the confusing traffic island (dubbed “malfunction junction”) near the library, and across Central and Main streets down to the bridge, already poses safety risks for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. Its hilly and curving nature creates poor sight lines for drivers as they approach the two pedestrian crosswalks on Central. Many out of town drivers are unaware of its 25-mph speed limit.

According to the Rockport Police Department, two car crashes already have occurred at the corner of Central and Main streets, due to the blind corner. Stuart’s proposed valets (possibly some of the 25 students he plans to hire each summer) will have to repeatedly make left turns from that same dangerous corner, as they drive the guests’ cars back to Main Street Meats. They will probably be in a hurry as valets must deliver the cars quickly. There would likely be multiple valet runs for many of the hotel’s guests, as they reclaim their cars to drive to Camden, Rockland, etc. during their hotel stays.

The steep hill at the end of Main Street is already used by traffic for Rockport Marine, Rockport Boat Club, Rockport Marine Park, commercial fishermen and many pedestrians, cyclists, and children. Planning Board Chair Joe Sternowski has expressed concerns about also routing Stuart’s delivery trucks down this hill, noting that it is “pretty narrow there, and really not passable even by two cars, let alone a car and a truck.”

The Town also has no previous experience overseeing a remote parking service, not to mention one of this size and scope. And according to the Town, it would it be Stuart’s obligation to monitor it, not theirs. If the Zoning Board actually approves his valet parking scheme in order to pave the way for his 35-room hotel, the Town could not later withdraw permission. Rockport residents will be stuck with remote valet parking permanently.

Finally, before voting on Stuart’s hotel, the Town should also create permit parking for public parking spaces that are already promised for residents’ use. This will help ensure that these spaces are not used by Stuart’s hotel guests or his 15 to 20  employees (40 to 45 in the summer). Due to the historic nature of some Village homes which were built next to carriage roads almost two centuries ago, some homeowners like me do not have any on-site parking and must rely on public spaces to park near our homes.

The Town is also counting some of the same spots that were promised to Rockport residents for the new library, and on which we relied when voting in favor of the bond, as spots which will be available for the hotel. Nearby residential streets like Mechanic Street are also at risk for being used by hotel guests.

I urge the Town to engage an independent qualified third party to study and advise the Town how to best address the many parking and traffic issues, before the Planning Board votes on Stuart’s hotel. I would request that the Zoning Board of Appeals not approve the parking variance sought by Stuart for his hotel as currently proposed with 35 rooms, at its meeting this Wednesday, January 22, at 5:30 p.m. at the Rockport Opera House.

If you are a Rockport resident who shares similar concerns about the hotel, please consider attending this meeting or the Planning Board meeting on Thursday, January 23, at the same time and place, or email the Town Planner, Bill Najpauer@rockportmaine.gov

I am confident a solution can be reached that will allow Stuart to build and operate his hotel in a manner that better complies with the Town’s parking and other ordinances; safeguards residents’ existing parking; protects driver, pedestrian and cyclist safety; and preserves Rockport Village’s beloved historic architecture and sense of place. Thank you.

Clare Tully lives in Rockport