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Planning Board bias raised, then dropped at zoning board meeting on hotel appeal

By Daniel Dunkle | Nov 18, 2020
Attorney Kristin Collins (top right) presents a slide during an online Zoning Board meeting arguing that Planning Board Vice Chairman John Viehman, left, and Chairman Joe Sternowski were biased. She later dropped the claim.

Rockport — An attorney for the residents fighting against the construction of a 26-room hotel in Rockport’s village first set out to provide evidence that Planning Board leaders were biased in favor of the project when they approved it, and then agreed to withdraw the bias claim on the condition that the Planning Board vice chairman not be allowed to speak during a five-hour Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 17.

The zoning board did not have time to carry out its deliberations or make a determination on the fate of the project’s approval after listening to several hours of presentations from attorneys and statements from the public. It tentatively plans to continue the process in a meeting Tuesday, Dec. 1.

Attorney Kristin Collins of PretiFlaherty represents 13 individuals who are appealing the Planning Board’s approval of the four-story hotel planned for 20 Central St. in downtown Rockport.

She argued first that Planning Board Chairman Joe Sternowski and Vice Chairman John Viehman favored the hotel. Collins played video of Viehman making statements during a meeting in which he said he was excited about the project. Collins quoted the Planning Board leaders as saying they were waiting for the project with “bated breath” and “when is opening day?”

She argued they were “giddy” about the project proposed by 20 Central Street, LLC., which is owned by Camden business developers Stuart, Marianne and Tyler Smith. She said they should have recused themselves from the process due to this bias.

She also argued it was unusual that in dealing with questions about whether the hotel had enough parking, Sternowski made a map of the town and its available parking spaces. She said it was inappropriate for the Planning Board chairman to create evidence and present it on behalf of the applicant.

Philip Saucier, the town attorney representing the Planning Board, said she had no evidence of actual bias and was relying on a distortion of comments made at the meetings. He said the Planning Board members had no conflicts of interest and were entitled in the absence of evidence to a presumption of honesty and integrity. Saucier also took Collins to task for casting aspersions on people who were volunteering to help the town.

Sternowski spoke at length in defending himself. He noted that he moved to Rockport six years ago, has a sailboat in the harbor, and has no desire to change the things about the town that drew him here. He said he is an engineer and he focuses on how things meet specifications. He acknowledged that he was excited about the project as an engineering challenge in looking at something of this scale which was less mundane than the usual Planning Board item.

Sternowski also argued the Planning Board should be welcoming to citizens and businesses that come to the community if they can follow the ordinances.

He said he did not know the applicants and there was no gain for him in approving this project.

Viehman was going to speak next, but at this point, now several hours into the meeting, Collins broke in saying she and the appellants would stipulate there was no bias if the meeting could move on. However, she said the condition of withdrawing that claim was that they did not continue with a long discussion of the bias issue from Viehman.

It seemed that speeding up the meeting was part of her goal. With four attorneys involved along with members of the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, it still took them some time to iron out the details of the agreement to drop the bias claim from the proceedings on the condition of Viehman not speaking. Viehman was not happy about this, saying, “You’ve made a pretty serious shot across the bow here.”

Attorney Sarah Gilbert of Camden Law, representing the Smiths, seized on the withdrawal, saying the appellants dropped the bias claim because there was no bias and Sternowski had made a compelling argument on that issue.

While Collins dropped the bias claim, she did also raise concerns that Tyler Smith had indicated he had talked to Saucier, the Planning Board’s attorney, which she said was unusual.

It was far from the only issue discussed in the appeals meeting, which stretched from 6 p.m. to nearly 11. The first hour of the discussion centered on whether the residents filing the appeal, who are peppered across the village, some not even having views of the proposed hotel, have any standing to bring an appeal.

It was finally decided that the group had standing on the basis that one of its number, architect John Priestley, had a building across the street from the location of the hotel site.

Those who oppose the project argue it does not meet the town’s rigorous parking requirements; it will create undue light pollution with all of its windows on the harbor; and it may create traffic and noise issues. In addition, they argue it will block the scenic view from the currently vacant lot between two buildings in Rockport’s downtown and it will not fit in with the rest of the community architecturally.

Clare Tully, a resident who is not listed in the appellants, but who has been a vocal opponent of the project, argued it would obliterate that view with a “sea of brick.”

Connie Russell disagreed with her, pointing out there is such a thing as a view easement people pay for in some cases to protect a view.

Collins argued the town’s comprehensive plan calls for protecting views. Gilbert argued inn-keeping is listed as a desirable use in the same comprehensive plan.

Tyler Smith went through the complaints point by point, noting that in every case a detailed plan for how parking, lighting, landscaping and so on would meet the exact specifications of the town’s ordinance.

He also argued that until the 1970s, two thirds of that same lot was occupied by a building and only a narrow alleyway was there providing any view.

The Zoning Board of Appeals is limited in the scope of what it can look at. It cannot consider new evidence, only that which was already presented in the 11 hours and 36 minutes that the Planning Board spent over eight meetings already considering this project. The Zoning Board has to determine whether the Planning Board was within its authority in approving the project and whether it considered enough evidence to be able to make that decision.

Attorney Krisitn Collins presented this map showing the purple dot with a bed as the proposed hotel location and the other dots representing locations of those appealing the hotel's approval.
This slide presented in the online zoning board meeting shows the proposed location of the hotel on Central Street. (Courtesy of: Tyler Smith)
A look at the proposed four-story hotel front, which will be made from local bricks to look like the nearby library's brick. Opponents argue, however, that this is not in architectural harmony with the rest of Rockport's village. (Courtesy of: Tyler Smith)
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