Public Hearing continues to Dec. 1

Zoning Board of Appeals begins review of Rockport hotel case; no decision, yet

Wed, 11/18/2020 - 1:15pm

    ROCKPORT — At the end of a Nov. 17 virtual meeting that lasted more than four hours, Rockport’s Zoning Board of Appeals chose to continue the public hearing of an appeal brought against the town's Planning Board approval a four-story, 26-room hotel to be built in Rockport Village.

    The appeal contends that the Planning Board abused its discretion and made findings not supported by substantial evidence when approving the project’s site plan last spring.

    The appeal was filed by 13 Rockport residents who are represented by Attorney Kristin Collins. The appellants own homes located in Rockport Village and around the site of the proposed hotel, 20 Central Street.

    The appellants cited concerns over the noise, traffic and lighting of the new hotel will have on them. They argued that insufficient details concerning parking or a traffic study were provided when project documents came before the Planning Board.

    The hotel proposed by Stuart and Maryann Smith and their son, Tyler, acting as “20 Central Str.eet LLC,” would fill a now empty parcel between Union Hall and the Shepherd Block, existing buildings that currently house the restaurants 18 Central, Seafolk Coffee and Nina June, as well as the Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School and other smaller businesses and nonprofits.

    Plans call for the new hotel to be built flush against the sides of both existing structures, which are also owned by the Smiths. The block of buildings sit directly across from Goodridge Park.

    Parking for guest vehicles would involve shuttling  through town via valet from Central Street, down Pascal Avenue to a parking lot located on Route 1 near the former Hoboken Gardens site.

    “Finally, as to scenic views, the Planning Board’s finding that the development will preserve scenic views cannot be substantiated, since it will eliminate the scenic view.... the space to be filled by the hotel has never been occupied by a building,” wrote Collins in a Nov. 9 letter to the ZBA.  “If the Board had considered this critical evidence, there is no way it could have reasonably concluded that the hotel would not have an undue impact on existing scenic views.”

    At the Nov. 17 Zoom meeting, the ZBA was represented by Leah Rachin, of the Portland-based firm Drummond Woodsum, and the Planning Board was represented by the town’s legal counsel, Phil Saucier, of the Portland-based Bernstein Shur.

    Central Street LLC was represented by attorney Sarah Gilbert of Camden Law.

    At the outset of the meeting, members of the ZBA spent nearly an hour determining whether or not the appellants represented by Collins had sufficient standing to present their appeal of the Planning Board decision. To have standing, in a proceeding, is to be designated as an aggrieved party suffering a particularized injury apart from the larger population – in this case the proximity of the appellants’ properties to the hotel site.

    After much deliberation, one appellant in particular, John Priestley, who owns the property at 23 Central Street, was given standing by the ZBA so that the appeal could be heard.

    Priestley’s property would be considered to abut the hotel site under the language, “any lot which is directly across a public street or way from the lot in question” in the town’s’ Land Use Ordinance (LUO.)

    Collins pointed out that the only other direct abutters were the Smiths themselves, who own the buildings on either side of 20 Central Street parcel.

    In her presentation, Collins stated that the proposed building, which would feature wrought iron balconies on both the Central Street and harbor facing sides, did not meet the town’s architectural standards for new structures, which focus on a style in keeping with existing buildings while giving a priority to the preservation of existing views.

    She said the Planning Board erred in determining that sufficient parking for the hotel had been provided, and in allowing the valet parking scheme proposed by the applicant.

    Collins also said that concerns related to noise and light pollution from the hotel were not properly addressed.

    Furthermore, Collins asserted that approval of the project was granted through certain board member’s predispositions in favor of the business, particularly Planning Board Chair Joe Sternowski and Vice Chair John Viehman.

    To illustrate, she replayed a portion of a Planning Board pre-application meeting video at which Sternowski and Viehman said “I think this will be a big add” and “We’ve been waiting with bated breath,” respectively.

    She also referred to an occasion on which Sternowski appeared to provide a parking study to the applicants to aid them in a workshop of possible parking options.

    “We believe this approval stemmed from an environment in the town where approval of the project was predisposed from the very beginning, that a path was cleared for this application, that a path was cleared after this application, that the Planning Board was a part of it and standards were not applied nearly as strictly as they could have been or should have been for a different application,” said Collins.

    Later in the appeal hearing the issue of bias was dropped; Saucier defended the integrity of Sternowski and Viehman (Sternowski spoke on his own behalf) and Collins waived the issue of bias from any further discussion. Once the bias contention was waived by Collins, it was assumed that this line will not be mentioned should the appeal be heard in court.

    “My thinking at that time was that this project would probably cause this board to examine more areas in the Land Use Ordinance, more comprehensively look at more parts of this Land Use Ordinance than we ever had before on any other project. So, based on my background – I’m a ‘spec’ geek – it was exciting. I thought it was pretty exciting to look at this and be able to consider a project this large compared to some of the other pretty mundane things we’d done before,” said Sternowski.

    Collins asserted that parking had been a continual concern throughout the planning process of the proposed hotel, adding that even Police Chief Randy Gagne said that the traffic added by guests to the hotel could prove problematic.

    She said that the latest parking study conducted by the town was from 2009, and questioned how the parking requirement of 56 spaces for the hotel and its two contained restaurants would be adequately satisfied though on-site and remote parking. One location, Sandy’s Way, a lot at the rear of 20 Central Street, could provide up to 51 spaces, but is considered a different lot from the hotel site and there is no parking lease in effect.

    “Sandy’s Way lot is owned by Shepherd Block Marrianne LLC and Stuart LLC, it is not owned by 20 Central LLC,” she said. “So it is not located on the same block and it is not held under the same ownership or lease. The applicant never presented a lease for easement or other parking arrangements... and that might seem like a technicality and it’s a technicality that might be easily addressed by the applicant – they are all the same people underlying all of these LLCs – but you still need a lease agreement,” said Collins.

    Gilbert and her client, Tyler Smith, each spoke on behalf of the project and addressed the points made in Collins’ presentation.

    “The two basic questions that I’m asking the ZBA tonight to consider are: Did the Planning Board make a decision that was within the scope of its authority as set forth in the ordinances – in other words is this the type of decision the Planning Board would ordinarily consider pursuant to the ordinances? And if the answer to this question is yes then... did the Planning Board have the ability to consider substantial evidence in the record prior to rendering its decision?

    “In looking at what they had before them, in the no less than six meetings that they had, was it enough evidence for a reasonable person to have made up their mind on the issue in the way that they did,” asked Gilbert. “The ZBA is not here to substitute its judgement for that of the Planning Board.”

    During his review of claims made that the balconies on the hotel were incongruent with other buildings in town, Tyler Smith said that nine other buildings in Rockport Village had either balconies or decks, said he believes the use of the wrought iron balconies was both “period and regionally appropriate.”

    Smith said the valet parking arrangement proposed would exceed industry standards.

    “As was presented in the site plan review, the estimated 56 additional valet vehicles will have a very minimal impact on the traffic burden. Right now per the Department of Transportation the current volume on that road is 4,700 daily vehicles, so the additional 56 does not increase the traffic burden on the current volume,” said Smith.

    Will Gartley, of Gartley & Dorsky Engineering, is the engineer of the hotel project, as well as a member of Rockport’s Ordinance Review Committee.

    “With regards to the scenic view that everybody keeps talking about...under section 913.3[of the Land Use Ordinance] this lot [20 Central Street] is allowed 100 percent lot coverage, 100 percent building coverage. So there’s no way that the Planning Board could force us to do anything different than what we proposed,” said Gartley.

    During a period of public comment, resident Clare Tully said that the obliteration of the view currently available from the vantage point of Goodridge Park couldn’t be substituted by seeking out another existing harbor view or “paying to have a cocktail at the top of the hotel.” Jonathan Biddle said he thought the hotel would be “beautiful” and would bring traffic to local businesses.

    At the Oct. 27 Select Board meeting Town Manager Bill Post said that on Sept. 23 Code Enforcement Officer Scott Bickford issued a permit for the filling and excavation work currently taking place at 20 Central St. in downtown Rockport, the site of a hotel proposed by Stuart Smith and Tyler Smith through 20 Central LLC.

    “I need to be clear that town is not allowing construction of a hotel to start on the site at this time as no building permit has been applied for at this site, and this would obviously be a requirement for them to start construction. It is obvious that this is the site of the proposed and planning board-approved hotel,” said Post.

    Reach Louis Bettcher at