The proposal by Mayor Carolyn Kirk to hold a non-binding referendum on the potential removal of the state’s Designated Port Area regulations limiting Gloucester harbor development has merit, especially if carried out, as she suggests, with an eye toward including the results in the city’s next Harbor Plan,.
Indeed, as Kirk noted in her latest “Mayor’s Desk” column (the Times, Saturday, Oct., 6), any issue of that magnitude deserves maximum public input, and a non-binding referendum like Kirk has proposed is the best way of generating that input. In fact, if this proposal goes forward, there’s no reason the city can’t also include a referendum on the proposed construction of a new West Parish School building that can’t handle that school’s current population, let alone open the door to the kind of consolidation the city needs — or a well-crafted “menu” ballot question with choices for the re-use of the former Fuller School, including its potential re-use as a school, a bit of public input that neither the mayor nor school officials want to hear.
But it’s also important to note that, first, any such Designated Port Area — or DPA — question would be non-binding. And secondly, the state, whose Seaport Advisory Council put the DPA in place, could easily just say “thanks for the sentiment, but ...” and tell the city, which continues to reel in Seaport grant funding, to take a flying leap.
In that vein, it’s important, as City Councilor and former mayor Bruce Tobey noted, that the City Council also separately pursue a measure that would either exempt the city-owned I-4, C-2 site from the state mandates — which still require 50 percent of any DPA property be used for “marine-dependent” development — or at least ease the percentage or perhaps change its wording to make the required usage “water-related,” a big difference when it comes to pursuing recreational boating, for example, as an I-4, C-2 option.
The city’s — and city taxpayers’ — needs for more freedom to develop the I-4, C-2 site need not necessarily come with the removal of the DPA from the entire waterfront, as Kirk’s proposal asks. And those needs should be addressed before the city comes up empty in yet another round of requests for proposals for the I-4, C-2 property.
When Tobey resurrected the idea of an I-4, C-2 pullout from the DPA last month, harbor planning director Sarah Garcia, whose salary is currently covered with Seaport Advisory grant money, suggested that it would be unfair for the city to seek DPA relief only for its own property, when other waterfront owners have sought such relief in the past as well. And there is a context to that.
But there should be no reason any individual property owner couldn’t seek the city’s blessing for similar relief, if a project merited that choice and was addressed on a case-by-case basis. And there’s really no reason why any DPA pullout has to be an all-or-nothing deal like the mayor’s referendum suggests.
Look, clearing the way for development of I-4, C-2 through relief from the DPA mandates isn’t just a matter of a property owner looking for a break.
It’s a case of a city looking to be accountable to — and doing what’s best for — its taxpayers, who ultimately are holding the long-dormant property.
Yes, the mayor’s referendum can go forward, and it can be part of a Harbor Plan. But Tobey and his council allies should not be delayed in pushing to free up the city’s corner of Gloucester’s Designated Port Area, regardless of an all-or-nothing referendum.
Support for the I-4, C-2 removal from DPA constraints may build momentum to push for overall DPA removal.
But these two paths are not mutually exclusive — and both deserve to go forward on their own merits.