After 151 residents signed a petition asking City Council to hold one more public hearing on the Birdseye Hotel Overlay District, the councilors, by city charter, had to comply.
They did, scheduling the hearing for Tuesday night.
But, as of now, the hearing won’t allow much time for public comment – councilors plan to open it and close it in virtually the same breath, according to a string of emails obtained by the Times.
Nathaniel Mulcahey, a local marine industrial activist and head of Worldstove Inc., filed the petition a day before City Council approved Beauport Gloucester LLC’s hotel overlay district for the Birdseye building on Commercial Street in May. The signatures were verified a day later.
In all, 151 registered voters signed the petition, asking the council to hold another hearing on the overlay district.
But the petition’s request for another public hearing doesn’t affect the council’s vote on the overlay zoning district, according to a memo from City Solicitor Suzanne Egan. The petition, her memo states, is a legally distinct matter from the council’s consideration of the overlay district.
While the council has to hold a hearing, Egan said there isn’t any action councilors can take, as the overlay proposal isn’t actually before the council. That has led to the council’s plans to open the hearing, then instantly move to close it next Tuesday night, according to a string of emails among councilors and other officials. Copies of those emails were sent to the Times.
People who signed the petition say that logic may maintain the letter, but sure violates the spirit, of the law.
“In my opinion, the letter of the law has been respected but not the intent,” Mulcahey stated in a separate email. “I worry that the actions of our elected representatives now seem to support and defend the interests of one outside investor over the interests of their constituents.”
Beauport Gloucester LLC, a company owned by New Balance owner James Davis and Cruiseport’s Sheree DeLorenzo, bought the Birdseye building on Commercial Street last year for $6.5 million from local developer Mac Bell. The company plans on building a roughly $20 million hotel on the lot.
The company’s attorney, John Cunningham, submitted its hotel overlay zoning proposal in February. The city’s Planning Board reviewed the proposal and held a pair of public hearings on it before City Council received the zoning proposal in May and held its only public hearing on May 8.
City councilors, meanwhile, opened their first public hearing on the overlay district that evening and, after a night of heated debate from residents and experts, cast their vote hours later.
Their vote, said the Rev. Rona Tyndall, a Fort Square resident who signed the petition, came the same night they received a stockpile of written comment on top of the meeting. Those written comments, she said, could not have been read before the council made its decision.
Petitioners had filed the signatures a day earlier, anticipating the council’s action and recognizing the deadline for written comments went right up to meeting time.
“At the meeting where they took the vote, they didn’t see all the evidence, they didn’t look at it,” Tyndall said. “We put a stockpile of evidence and people made very compelling presentations, but they had decided before the meeting.”
City Councilor President Jackie Hardy, who would initiate the council’s handling of the Tuesday hearing, did not return calls seeking comment.
A petition of 150 or more signatures requires the council to hold a public hearing on the issue that petition presents. The council, according to the city charter, has to hold the hearing.
A second public hearing, Tyndall said, would allow residents to present that comment.
But City Clerk Linda Lowe said that’s not the way it works
“Because the HOD (hotel overlay district) zoning district is already completed there is not anything now for the councilors to decide, so they will open the hearing and close the hearing,” Lowe stated in one of the emails obtained by the Times.
Egan said that, between the public hearings held by both the City Council and Planning Board, residents had enough time to provide any commentary to both bodies.
But beyond that, the city followed the state mandated zoning process to the letter, and can’t add another public hearing.
“Once the final action is taken,” Egan said, “ the council essentially doesn’t have any more authority on that zoning amendment.”
There isn’t any legal basis, she stated in a memo, on which an additional public hearing can be held. The petition, she said, didn’t ask the council to revisit it’s decision; it simply asked for another public hearing.
Tyndall said she received a notice of the July 24 hearing last week in her mailbox, but realized that the notice had no agenda. She said she couldn’t find out what that was, then found that the meeting was going to be open and quickly shut down.
The pro-forma way of dealing with the petition, said Tyndall, satisfies the regulation, but it doesn’t satisfy the residents city leaders are sworn to serve. Even if the hearing wouldn’t change their minds, she said they should still listen.
“Even if you’ll never agree with us, listen and say ‘thank you for your time,’” Tyndall said.
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org.