Planning Board to voters: allow hotels in downtown Rockport

By Louis Bettcher | Apr 10, 2017
Source: GoogleMaps A view of one of the vacant lots along Central Street in Rockport.

Rockport — The Rockport Planning Board voted April 5 in favor of a change to the town's Land Use Ordinance that would permit hotels to be built downtown.

The board's recommendation will appear before Rockport voters in June on the annual town meeting ballot.

The proposed ordinance change would allow hotels to be built with an aggregate maximum of 40 rooms in this zoning district, on a first come-first served basis.

Referred to as the core area of the downtown, Zone 913 consists of some eight parcels along Central Street which include the Shepherd Building. Four of these parcels are owned by Stuart Smith.

Town Planner Jamie Francomano said in 2016 developmental changes were made within Zone 913, which established a 50-foot maximum height and zero setbacks for.commercial buildings.

“We've restored the traditional development potential of the downtown village, we're really lucky that somebody noticed, a developer of hotels and a well-known property owner said 'I'd like to put a hotel down there,' said Francomano.

Last year, Stuart and Tyler Smith approached Francomano with plans to build a hotel on Central Street.

The Smiths own 14, 16, 18 and 20 Central St. The 18 Central St. parcel includes the Shepherd Building and the private parking lot behind. 20 Central St. is a vacant lot directly adjacent to the Shepherd Building. 14 and 16 Central, where two small homes once sat, is vacant parcel of land between the Shepherd Building and Mary Lea Park.

Francomano said that it is common for the Ordinance Review Committee to take it's cue from a particular lot owner with a specific idea and “start fleshing that out” with regard to possible amendments that would effect an entire zoning district.

“This has been reviewed by the town attorney, and this is a legitimate way to limit the impacts and monitor the impacts of this new use,” said Francomano.

Francomano said that the Ordinance Review Committee could amend the number of permitted rooms once one hotel is constructed, if the zoning district seems “saturated” with hotel business.

Francomano added there is no parcel with adequate space to construct a 40-room hotel, and that it is likely that one parcel could hold a hotel with approximately 24 rooms. He said there is no guarantee with regard to parking, but reminded the Board that Smith is also the owner of the parking lot behind the three parcels he owns on Central Street.

“There is a lot of parking down to the rear that people just don't seem to be cognizant of and those parking spaces were counted and attributed and factored-in to the ORC coming up with this final formula and proposal,” said Board member Terri MacKenzie.

“When this was discussed...I thought, 'why are we limiting it?' Either we're going to have hotels or not...why have a limit on it? If people want to build a hotel, then they should,” said Board Chairman John Alexander.

Rockport resident and Select Board member Geoff Parker asked Francomano how the “first come-first served” method of allocating the 40 rooms to potential builders would be enacted.

“What is the mechanism? Is it a declaration? Is it a sign-up? What does that mean from the ordinance's perspective?” asked Parker.

“From the initial claim on that number, the default is very simple, as the town attorney sees it: you'll get a building permit. You get some kind of vested right through the approval of the town,” said Francomano.

However, he said, a question the town doesn't know the answer to is what happens if hotel rooms, once created, disappear or turn into something else, how will the town know?

Board member alternate Ted Skowronski expressed concern that the proposed amendment gives no indication what type of rooms the 40 will be, and that these could range from bedrooms to conference halls and dining spaces.

“Are we talking 40 rooms that could [have] any use? It's just saying 40 rooms, it's not specifying,” said Skowronski. Francomano said he believed the number referred to rooms which may be reserved, or accessed by a guest key.

Prior to the Board voting, only two members of the audience spoke during a period of public comment. They raised concerns over how the downtown aesthetic may be impacted by a hotel, and the definition of "rooms" involved in the ordinance change.

“I don't want Rockport to turn into another Camden, with T-shirt shops...I think that a lot of Rockport residents cherish that it is different from Camden. I'd like to know what assurances we have as residents that [a hotel] is going to be done in a tasteful way,” said Cindy Kava.

“How did this number 40 even come into existence, because it seems that we don't really understand how a room or its use is defined,” asked Rockport resident Chip Kava.

“We certainly started with smaller numbers, but then the thought was the first person that comes will take them all, and that seems too much like picking the winner in advance, in regard to who the next permittee will be,” said Francomano.

Alexander said if an ordinance is voted in, it doesn't stop the town from making changes in the future if they found they went too far or not far enough, or need more definition.

“If you asked me to define how this [proposal] defines a room, I still wouldn't have an answer for you, but you guys don't have one either,” said Kava. “If that's your starting point, how is anything else clearer, if [the room definitions] are that nebulous?”

MacKenzie agreed, stating they should have a definitions overhaul.

The Board voted 5-0 in favor of the ordinance change. Skowronski raised his hand in opposition to the proposal, but his dissenting vote was not recorded as he is an alternate member.

The Rockport Select Board will discuss the ordinance Tuesday, April 18, at 7 pm. in the meeting room of the Rockport Opera House. The Select Board's recommendation will appear along with that of the Planning Board on the annual town meeting ballot in June.

Courier Publications reporter Louis Bettcher can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at lbettcher@villagesoup.com.

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