By Jonathan L'Ecuyer
ROCKPORT — Quiet tension turned to thunderous cheers and applause in Rockport High School's crowded gymnasium Saturday — but this was no sporting event.
The reaction came when an estimated 500 Town Meeting voters learned the Rockport Chamber Music Festival had reached a settlement with abutter Gary Puryear over a lawsuit that had threatened the festival's planned downtown performance center.
The agreement clears the way for construction of the $17.5 million Shalin Liu Performance Center. It also prompted the festival to drop its bid to create a new downtown "cultural overlay district," a zone that would have included 26 Main Street properties, including the music hall site. Two Town Meeting articles related to the zoning district were never moved forward for votes.
"The last 24 hours have been very intense," Festival Chairman Thomas Burger said Saturday afternoon. "This settlement is better than a win on the Main Street Cultural Overlay District vote because of what it does for us. We still would've been in court with the guy ... but the lawsuit is being withdrawn and we can move forward."
Prior to the vote on the proposed zoning district, festival board member William Hausman was chosen to deliver what many residents called "wonderful news."
"After intense negotiations over the last 72 hours, the festival and the Puryears reached a settlement that will result in the end of the court case," Hausman announced from the podium. "I hope you will rejoice with us that this lengthy period has come to a close. We hope to get back on track with fundraising and begin (construction) this fall."
Puryear had filed a legal challenge to the Zoning Board of Appeals' permit issued to the festival for the 325-seat performance center. Terms of the settlement will remain confidential, festival officials said. It was unclear whether the festival acquired Puryear's property, which had been assessed at $750,000. According to Burger, Puryear initially wanted $2.25 million for the property — an amount the festival soon rejected — but Puryear said he never proposed a $2.25 million buy-out.
Puryear did not attend Town Meeting, and attempts to reach him over the weekend were unsuccessful.
Hausman said the settlement must still be approved by the festival's board of directors at its next meeting, scheduled for Thursday, April 17. On Saturday, he said he didn't expect there to be any problems associated with finalizing the agreement.
The timeline was tight, Burger said, as a deal was completed by 5 p.m. Friday, documents were sent out around 2:30 a.m. Saturday and signed in Rockport just minutes before Hausman got the call and announced the news to Town Meeting voters.
"What a great shot in the arm for the town," festival supporter Peter Beacham said at Town Meeting. "It will be an economic stimulus and cultural benefit for decades to come. I'm very excited."
Ruth Main, an opponent of the cultural overlay district, said she was unhappy with the festival's approach to solving their problems and credited the Puryears' lawsuit with "saving Rockport's downtown."
Hausman said he had two speeches prepared — the one he eventually delivered on the settlement, the other on the motion of the cultural overlay district. The district proposal was on the agenda as Article D, which would have opened the door for any property of 5,000 feet or more within the zone to be used as an arts or cultural facility. Ten of the properties in the proposed district would have qualified for that designation.
Neither Hausman nor Burger would speculate as to why the Puryears expressed renewed motivation toward reaching a settlement, but both said it was an endgame the festival had been requesting from the Puryears on an almost daily basis.
"Settling this issue has always been our primary objective," said Hausman, who credited Town Moderator Bob Visnick with encouraging both sides to reach an agreement ahead of Town Meeting. "We didn't want the court case to run its course. (The district) was the only legislative avenue we had with the potential to shorten the time frame to move the project along."
Burger said the festival still supports working on the town's zoning bylaw, which required the festival to apply for a variance in the first place, prompting Puryear's lawsuit. He said the festival looks forward to working with the Planning Board and other town boards to try and fix what he deemed "flaws" in the bylaw.
Hausman said it's now time for festival officials to turn its focus back to fundraising efforts, which have been on hold since August when the lawsuit arrived.
The festival has raised some $12 million for the performance hall, which is projected to be a facility that will attract more visitors to Rockport. Burger said it's the festival's goal to begin construction by October, which would mean the new performance center would be ready to house chamber music festival performances by June 2010.
"We are very thankful for all the people who worked on the get-out-the-vote efforts today," Burger said. "Now, this gift for the town of Rockport can come to fruition."
Jonathan L'Ecuyer can be reached at email@example.com.