Even as heavy equipment and construction crews could be seen working at the site of the planned downtown hotel, the future of the project is uncertain.

The planning board has approved a 26-room hotel proposed for the vacant lot at 20 Central Street by developer Stuart Smith and family.

However, an appeal of that approval has been filed by the Friends of RockP.O.R.T. group, which opposed the project. No matter how the appeal goes, the case is likely to end up in court with whichever party loses taking the dispute to the next stage.

Further complicating matters, townspeople approved a petition item Aug. 18 limiting hotels and inns in the community to 20 rooms. The question now is whether this project will be the approved 26 rooms or pulled back to the new requirement of 20 rooms.

It is clear from the work continuing to be done that the project is moving forward.

The Rockport Planning and Community Development office issued a filling and excavation permit for 20 Central Street LLC on Sept. 23. No other applications have been filed by the company, which is owned by Stuart Smith and family, and the town does not have a timeline for further applications.

This permit allows the developers to get the ground ready for construction. Putting in the foundation and constructing the building will require a building permit from the code office and approval from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, according to engineer Will Gartley of Gartley & Dorsky, which submitted the application for the permit for the site work.

Architect John Hansen of South Thomaston is working on the design of the actual building for the project.

Attorney Kristin Collins represents the group Friends of RockP.O.R.T., which filed the appeal.

“The petition limiting individual hotels to no more than 20 rooms was written with the intent to apply to this project and, in my opinion, does apply to this project because it has not yet received its building permit(s),” she said in an email Monday, Oct. 19. “It is my understanding that the Town is waiting for a building permit application to be submitted before issuing a decision as to whether the number of rooms must be reduced from 26 to 20. The appellants would of course like to know both the developer’s and the town’s intentions, as the appeal does not need to proceed right now if the project is going to be substantially revised.”

The Select Board released a letter Aug. 2 to the press saying approving the new limit would “retroactively reduce the size of the Planning Board approved hotel from 26 rooms to 20.”

Townspeople supported two citizen petitions related to the project in the Aug. 18 town meeting election.

Residents voted 332-250 to approve Article 3 to require an independent traffic study done by a third party to approve off-street parking for businesses. The applicant would pay for the study.

In addition, they voted 328-271 to approve another citizen petition item limiting the number of guest rooms in a hotel to 20.

Town Manager Bill Post confirmed Oct. 19 that “The Land Use Ordinance has been updated with the changes that were approved at the August 18th vote.”

The issue of 20 rooms or 26 may come down to a decision from Code Enforcement Officer Scott Bickford.

“The Planning Board approved the project before the amendments went into effect; the code enforcement officer will make a determination as to the applicability of the amendments on the project if and when the developer applies for a building permit,” Post said.

Critics of the change in the ordinance have pointed out that changing the number of rooms does not change the size of the hotel. It could simply be the same size with larger rooms.

“Phil Saucier of Bernstein Shur represents the Planning Board on behalf of the town and Leah Rachin of Drummond Woodsum represents the Zoning Board of Appeals,” Post also confirmed.

A Zoning Board of Appeals meeting has been scheduled for Nov. 17 in response to the appeal filed by the “Friends of RockPORT” group challenging the Planning Board’s approval. The meeting is listed on the town website calendar as tentative and expected to begin at 5:30 p.m. (This story was written Tuesday morning, Oct. 20, and since the meeting is listed as tentative, interested parties should check the town website to make sure this does not change).

“An announcement of the ZBA meeting to hear the appeal of the hotel approval by the Planning Board will be forthcoming,” Post said.

Debate and discussion of the project is expected to continue in town for the foreseeable future.

filed under: