GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

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October 3, 2012

Rules put clamps on Fort input

Solicitor cites permit laws in blocking open ward talks

After Beauport Gloucester LLC worked through its plans for a hotel on the Birdseye property two weeks ago, Ward 2 Councilor Melissa Cox said Tuesday she had planned on holding a meeting with residents to learn what questions they had about the company’s special permit proposal.

Last week, she says, she found out she couldn’t do that. Cox was told that any such meeting would violate state law that blocks a member of a permit-granting authority to take testimony outside of the permitting process.

Because the council has quasi-judicial power in the special permit process – and because the council’s handling of the initial overlay proposal drew a lawsuit challenging the process — City Councilor Bruce Tobey says the council is adhering as tightly as possible to state zoning, public records and open meeting law this time.

But Cox said the suddenly strict adherence to a rule that has yet to be enforced locally is a little frustrating.

“(It) seems backward as I can’t hold a meeting until we had information (the plans) and the information didn’t come out until after the process started,” Cox said in an e-mail.

And Councilor Sefatia Romeo-Theken, noting this is the first time in her six terms on the council that a councilor couldn’t hold a ward meeting on an active permit request, said she’s concerned the move will only further stifle public input.

“I’m appalled that, in all these years no one brought to our attention we were doing things wrong,” she said, noting that councilors held ward meetings when the Gloucester Crossing special permit and the permit for the Hampton Inn project on Essex Avenue were in the works.

When the council approved Beauport’s proposal for a hotel overlay district on that property, the Port Community Alliance – a group of Fort neighborhood residents and businesses — filed suit, alleging spot zoning and failure to follow the correct approval procedure. Because of that, Tobey said, the council’s being extremely cautious.

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