By James Niedzinski
---- — ROCKPORT — A budget with a $1.3 million – or 5.1 percent — spending increase will be on the table for Rockport’s Annual Town Meeting voters Saturday morning, along with controversial proposals involving Long Beach leases and a plan to hand down steeper fines for Bearskin Neck businesses who fail to follow mandates regarding outdoor displays.
The Saturday session begins with a special town meeting, largely geared toward balancing the current year’s budget, at 9 a.m. in the Rockport High School gymnasium; that will be followed by the Annual Town Meeting that’s set to begin at 9:30.
The Town Meeting has returned to a Saturday format this year after last year’s was moved to Monday night to avoid conflicts with both Easter weekend and the celebration of Passover. One of the articles on Saturday’s warrant calls for permanently shifting the meeting to the third Monday of April, rather than the first Saturday, to avoid those conflicts in the future.
The town’s budget proposal for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1, calls spending $25,019,048, up from the current year’s budget of $23,811,250 — and due in large part to a jump in special education funding needed by the town’s school district.
Beyond the town’s budget and spending issues, however, Article R, proposed by the Board of Selectmen, calls for the leases on approximately 150 cottages along Long Beach to be extended from 10 to 30 years.
Erin Battistelli, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, said voters can choose to renegotiate the lengths of the leases. She said that, while recent state legislation allows longer leases on buildings, there was never a restriction on how long town land can be leased.
She also said that, with the leases expiring at the end of this year, the town’s counsel, the Boston-based law firm Kopelman and Paige, is in the process of reviewing and forming new lease agreements.
Battistelli said while recent state legislation passed allowing longer leases on buildings, there was never a state restriction on how long anyone can lease land, that restriction was only set by the an Annual Town Meeting vote more than 100 years ago.
Selectmen Paul Murphy said that some of the seasonal residents have trouble securing funds for current lease lengths, while a 30-year lease would be easier to secure for some residents.
According to the current lease agreement, which took effect in 2004, the seasonal cottages were leased at $2,100 a year for the first row and $1,300 a year for the second row, with rates increasing gradually on different houses each January.
”It will be interesting to see how town meeting goes forward with this,” Murphy said.
Another article on the warrant would invigorate Long Beach itself. The Department of Public Works is seeking $75,000 for a sediment transport nourishment study.
Joe Parisi, director of the Department of Public Works, said that while design plans have been drawn up for repairing the seawall, which could cost up to $13 million, there are other questions that need to be addressed first.
Parisi said that any work done to the wall must not affect the beach, as significant erosion has occurred.
He said whatever investment the town makes must last a number of years.
Voters will also decide to accept what will essentially bring about a 99-year lease on the Rockport High School Apartments building. Last year, voters agreed to allocate $250,000 from the Community Preservation Fund to Harborlight Community Partners, a Beverly-based nonprofit group that advocates affordable housing.
This year, Article S, which would require special legislation if passed, would allow for a 51-year lease extension— starting in 2061 — so the apartment complex can continue its use as low income housing for senior citizens. The property manager had previously said about 100 senior citizens are on the waiting list to enter the 31-bedroom apartment complex.
The DPW is also proposing to purchase land off Pleasant Street to be used as watershed land. Parisi said there is no amount set aside yet, but the funding would come from Community Preservation Act funds.
Officials are also proposing steeper fines for those who violate outdoor sign bylaws along Bearskin Neck.
Murphy, a supporter of the fine increases, said previously that current fine amounts — a warning on the first offense, $25 fine for a second offense, $50 for a third, and $100 for any fourth and subsequent offense — were not steep enough.
The proposed increase keeps the first offense warning in place, but with a $100 fine for any second and subsequent citation.
Supporters of the increase believe the fine amounts are reasonable, as a business owner is currently allowed to have three items displayed outside. Additionally, outdoor displays of merchandise are detrimental to the atmosphere of Bearskin Neck.
Opponents say the increased step fines are not business-friendly, and some business owners feel displaying outdoor merchandise is necessary to promote what they offer customers inside.
Voters will also decide whether to back a bylaw that would allow for more thorough background checks to hawkers and door to door salesmen in Rockport.
There are also articles that would allow for a new site plan review process. One article proposes a pre-application process for single or multifamily homes rather than the informal discussion.
Another Planning Board article would allow for special permits, which are easier to obtain than variances for renovations or additions to homes.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at email@example.com.