The city’s chief attorney said Tuesday she’ll vigorously defend the city against a lawsuit alleging that the City Council’s May approval of a hotel overlay district on Commercial Street amounts to illegal spot zoning.
And City Solicitor Suzanne Egan added that she views the lawsuit’s allegations of unidentified councilors being wrongfully swayed by “gifts” received before voting on the measure as false and “inflammatory.”
But while a group defined as Hold the Fort Inc. and two individual co-plaintiffs — Nathaniel Mulcahy and Laurel Tarantino —brought the lawsuit against the city two weeks ago, a member of the organization said Tuesday the Hold the Fort corporation has “been disbanded” in favor of reorganizing under a new registered name and with a different focus.
In addition to citing spot zoning claims, the still-pending lawsuit also alleges that two city councilors received gifts, directly or indirectly, from the proponent of the zoning amendment, “clouding their objectivity” and allegedly in violation of state ethics laws, the lawsuit states.
As of press time on Tuesday, however, the corporation had not provided any evidence in support of those and other allegations against the City Council, Egan said, and the lawsuit doesn’t specify any such gifts or the councilors.
Egan said Tuesday she will file an answer addressing every charge in Hill’s lawsuit by Aug. 28.
“The city and the city councilors adamantly deny that,” Egan said referring to the gift allegations. “I think it’s a misstatement, and it’s inflammatory.”
The lawsuit, filed by Cambridge Attorney Daniel Hill on behalf of “Hold the Fort Inc,,” primarily asks the state’s Land Court to rule that the Hotel Overlay district on Commercial Street is spot zoning, approved unlawfully, and the city illegally misused zoning to benefit a private company at the expense of the public.
Hill declined comment Tuesday on his lawsuit and the allegations levied at the City Council. He said any comment regarding it would have to come through a corporation spokesperson.
That corporation representative, however, did not discuss the allegations, saying only that they were part of an “investigation.”
“While we are not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation, we would like to take the opportunity to announce that the Hold The Fort group has been disbanded and restructured under the registered name of Port Community Alliance,” said the Rev. Rona Tyndall.
The new corporation, she said, is dedicated to bringing together people and groups who value Gloucester’s core identity. She said the corporation is looking to go beyond issues related to the former Birdseye property —the site of the overlay zone and the proposed new hotel sought by Beauport Gloucester LLC, a corporation headed by New Balance owner Jim Davis and Cruiseport Gloucester’s Sheree DeLorenzo. The Port Community Alliance is also looking to address issues related to fisheries, marine industrial development, and the preservation of Pavilion Beach.
City Councilor Melissa Cox said Tuesday that questions about the lawsuit have to go through City Solicitor Suzanne Egan. Councilors, she added, have been told not to discuss the suit.
“Any questions will have to be directed through legal,” Cox said.
As to the lawsuit claims that councilors accepted “gifts,” city councilor and former mayor Bruce Tobey said, “There’s some stuff you don’t want to dignify with a response.”
Tobey chairs the council subcommittee that reviewed the overlay district proposed by developer Beauport Gloucester LLC in May. The company is now seeking its permits for a 101-room, four story, $20 million to $25 million hotel for the former Birdseye site, having acquired the property a year ago for $6.5 million from developer Mac Bell. Tobey’s committee takes up the company’s special permit application tonight at City Hall.
Tobey said he hoped the corporation and residents who opposed the planned hotel would advance good arguments and engage the council in a substantive way, rather than fire blanket allegations.
The council, he said, dug into the issue of spot zoning during its review process, and found the project to be within legal guidelines.
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @StevenGDT.