ZBA hears library appeal

Verdict on hold until Oct. 17
By Gabriel Blodgett | Sep 12, 2019
Photo by: Gabriel Blodgett Members of the Zoning Board of Appeals listen to testimony during an appeal of the Rockport Library building permit Sept. 11.

Rockport — The Zoning Board of Appeals considered the appeal of the building permit issued for the construction of the Rockport Library, Sept. 11 at the Rockport Opera House, but failed to reach a decision. After more than four hours of argument, testimony and questioning, the board decided to reconvene Thursday, Oct. 17, at 5:30 p.m. to make a decision.

Stephen Earle of 3 Limerock St., represented by attorney Patrick J. Mellor of Strout & Payson, submitted an appeal to the town June 11 alleging that the permit application filed by Phi Builders + Architects was “not subject to meaningful review” prior to approval by Code Enforcement Officer Scott Bickford.

The debate centered on whether Bickford had the authority to approve the permit without its being subject to Planning Board review and whether the application met certain standards under the town’s Land Use Ordinance.

As called for by the Board of Appeals section of the Maine State Statute, the board conducted a “de novo” review, meaning that it was to evaluate any evidence without regard for previous decisions on the matter.

Earle began proceedings by stating that he was not opposed to the construction of the library, but that he and neighbors felt their input was not being taken into consideration by the town and Select Board and he was left with “no other way to address these issues” besides taking legal action.

Mellor argued that it was unprecedented that “a project of this size was not subject to review of your peers,” adding, “ordinances have not been complied with on a number of levels.”

Philip R. Saucier of Bernstein Shur, representing the town and assisting Bickford, argued that not only was the library not subject to many of the ordinances mentioned by the appellant because of its status as a municipal or community building, if it were, it would still meet the requirements laid out in the ordinances.

He urged the seven-member committee, counseled by yet another lawyer, William S. Kelly, to uphold the issuance of the permit.

At the heart of the debate were sections of the ordinance on performance standards, traffic circulation, access and street design standards, site plan review, and the definition of “commercial building.”

Section 1001 under Performance Standards states, “the purpose of this section is to provide standards and guidance for the landscaping, architectural design and parking areas for all commercial properties in the Town of Rockport.”

Saucier argued that this excused the library from compliance with further subsections relating to buildings being “visually harmonious with the overall appearance of neighboring structures” and requiring off-street parking. Even so, he insisted the library was in compliance with the performance standards.

However, the same section goes on to state “all non-residential development proposed within Rockport shall be subject to the regulations, procedures and standards specified in the following sections,” which Mellor argued showed the intent of the section to include all buildings not zoned for residential use.

Section 803, which deals with off-street parking , was also brought up by Mellor, but Saucier said the Select Board had previously determined the parking at a number of meetings and worked with the Maine Department of Transportation on the intersection, which was not part of the permit issued by Bickford.

Section 1303 of the ordinance, regarding applicability of site plan review, states that reviews - done by the Planning Board - are only necessary in certain situations pertaining to commercial buildings and change of use. Saucier argued that as the library does not meet any of these criteria, it is also not subject to any previous sections of the ordinance.

Mellor responded that one section of the ordinance does not depend on another, and that even if the site plan review does not apply, the project still must comply with previous sections.

Another point of contention was the size of the library, which Mellor stated several times was pitched to the public as a 7,000-square-foot structure, citing promotional materials and news articles from the lead-up to and aftermath of the November 2018 election. According to the current plans, the building will be 10,000 square feet. Architect Stephen G. Smith said after voters chose not to approve a 9,400-square-foot structure that would have cost $4 million in 2017 he was instructed to cut both the costs and finished area by 25 percent. The new library will have two 5,000-square-foot floors, but 3,000 square feet in the lower level -- Smith said he has been instructed not to call it a basement -- will be unfinished and, at least initially, used strictly for storage.

In his testimony, Smith also addressed issues of lighting raised by Mellor, saying the town had consulted with a lighting professional and a landscape architect. With regard to the height of the building, Smith said the peak of the roof will be 29 feet, 8 inches above the highest point of the ground and 40 feet, 8 inches above the lowest point, within the range specified by the ordinance, which, he noted, he wrote during his time on the Ordinance Review Committee.

The appeal also asserted that the project had been rushed through in a manner that was not adequately transparent. In response to this claim, former Town Manager Rick Bates testified that in his 40 years of municipal service he had “never witnessed a public litigation of a public project” of this magnitude.

“It took six years,” he said. “That’s not rushed.”

Reiterating a point made earlier by Saucier, he said that when voters approved the library in November 2018, they also approved the design and the funding and that in the subsequent months there had been many public meetings with the Select Board and Library Building Committee.

The floor was then opened for public comment. ZBA Chair Geoffrey Parker began that portion of the proceedings by reading a letter signed by 35 people, many of whom live in downtown Rockport, stating concern that the project had not gone through the appropriate channels, did not fit comfortably on the site, had radically changed the neighboring Memorial Park, and calling for consideration by the Planning Board. Select Board member Doug Cole asserted that several of the signers were not Rockport residents.

Resident John Priestley then took the podium to say that in more than six years serving on the Planning Board, many of the projects they considered did not meet the definition of “commercial” being used by the defense. He then read correspondence between Bates, former board member Owen Casas and himself to illustrate the town’s lack of interest in public support and said the 35 signers of the letter were further illustration of this indifference.

“I can’t think of a project that is more worthy of Planning Board consideration,” he concluded.

Resident Ralph Wallace spoke next, saying he could not “imagine a process that was more open,” adding that it was “almost choked by democracy.”

Members of the ZBA will now spend the next month considering the appeal before reconvening to work through the materials. There will be no additions to the record at the next meeting, only discussion and findings by the board. In the meantime, members are not allowed to speak about the appeal with any members of the public.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Sep 12, 2019 15:41

What a mess. Democracy is not in action. Perhaps renovating the old one in- hind- site would have been better. A town divided is never good.

If you wish to comment, please login.