GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 16, 2008

'Overlay' zoning for Fort approved

By Richard Gaines

Flouting localized, community opinion, the Planning Board has put its weight behind cracking the door of the gritty, industrial Fort to the possibility of a hotel with condos, restaurants and shops.

These uses which are now barred inside the Marine Industrial zone that takes in the entire 9-plus acre enclave and most of the rest of the waterfront would be allowed only by special permit vote of the City Council.

But first the council would need to put in place the land use and development tool — an overlay district — that the board selected Monday night to howls by opponents and one member of the seven member board.

"So much for democracy," said Ernest Morin, a member of the Fort Community Association, in an e-mailed press release. Expressing worries about gentrification, Fort residents and business interests organized this fall to contest Mayor Carolyn Kirk's proposal to remove zoning strictures to a hotel.

Developers for Marriott have expressed interest in the former Birds Eye property, which is now a cold storage facility, owned by an Illinois bank in foreclosure and offered as a hotel site.

Kirk praised the board's recommendation, approved on a 6-1 vote after four months of meetings and fierce opposition from the community.

The advisory vote sends the Fort's rezoning to the council. Hearings are not expected to begin until January.

Dissenting board member and architect Michael David Rubin described the overlay district proposal as "a mask" for the original rezoning approach from the mayor, which would have made the Birds Eye site part of the downtown Central Business district.

That idea was abandoned last month after planning director Gregg Cademartori wrote to the board that the business district didn't impose enough controls on the Fort neighborhood, a unique mix, with heavy, fish-based industries moating a tightly packed group of apartment buildings.

Rubin wrote that his colleagues in substituting the overlay district concept left the "impression" they were trying to "undermine the stated wishes of Fort citizens."

"My own opinion is that the overlay district proposal is not professional, actually amateurish, and deceptive, little more than snob zoning under the guise of technicalities," he wrote before the vote.

The rest of the board disagreed.

Board member Rick Noonan yesterday described the overlay concept as "an elegant solution to a complicated problem," and Shawn Henry said the proposal is similar to what the "Fort Community" had proposed during the hearing process with its "Marine Industrial Plus" idea to keep the zoning in place while adding some uses desired by the residents.

"If this body of work is adopted," Noonan said, "zoning doesn't change and residents still have full protection. God forbid if somebody comes and says we want to invest," he added.

Henry said the only controversial possibility in the overlay concept is the hotel. "We left the hotel as an option" via "special permit."

"The way rezoning of the Fort has been handled is an example of a solid public process working the way it is supposed to," Kirk said in an e-mail. "The initial proposal advanced by the Administration has been modified based on public input.

"Compromises have been made on all sides resulting in a reasonable outcome that balances the needs of the city with those of the neighborhood," she added.

The dispute echoes the larger ongoing debate about the city's future between Kirk, the council and citizens who yearn to attract external investment in the tourism sector and citizens who fear the city's capitulation to easy promises and exploitation that risk the loss of the old seaport's essential character.

Similar arguments flew around the three-year debate over the Gloucester Crossing Shopping Center which has been assigned city and state tax benefits.

Rubin said it was his perception that "positions are hardening" about the rezoning of the Fort.

Morin wrote that the board "gave the mayor what she wanted in a different form. See what the council does in mid-January."

In a letter to the council, Morin identified himself as a member of Citizens for Gloucester Harbor as well as the Fort Community Association and faulted the Planning Board for approving an idea that had not been given a public hearing.

"A tourist oriented hotel facility has no place in a primary industrial zone," he wrote.

While more broad-based and focused on supporting the state Designated Port Area designation that bars most non-marine industrial activities, Citizens for Gloucester Harbor overlaps with the Fort Community Association and shares its opposition to a waterfront hotel.

Residents and business interests have expressed anger that Kirk submitted a preliminary proposal based on input from consultants but not the Fort itself.

Kirk described a waterfront hotel as the catalyst the city needs, and expressed envy when developers just weeks ago agreed to put a Marriott on the New Bedford waterfront.

Under the overlay district concept, the existing Marine Industrial zoning would remain but barred activities as spelled out by the council would be allowed by special permit.

The proposal approved by the board would allow for a hotel and dwelling units, restaurants and shops. It would also allow the council to grant special permits for mixed use of existing apartment buildings and subdivision of those buildings into more apartments.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.