By Sean Horgan
---- — Two weeks ago, the city’s Designated Port Area seemed inviolable to change, and Scott Memhard could all but hear the beating of the vultures’ wings above his Cape Pond Ice property on Commercial Street.
Now, after a fortnight’s flurry of activity on the city and state level, two things are clear: Memhard’s fighting chance for saving his business will be decided by the Massachusetts Legislature and the DPA, long considered sacrosanct in its boundaries and concept, could undergo its first modifications.
When Gloucester city councilors sit down for their regular session Tuesday night, they will be greeted by an agenda that includes two items seeking to remove properties from the mile-long DPA.
One asks the council to join Mayor Carolyn Kirk and the city’s state legislative delegation in supporting Memhard’s request to have his property at 104 and 106A Commercial St. removed from the DPA to escape from its strict constraints on development and business use.
The other proposal, which has been visited before, will ask the council to vote to file a home rule petition with the Massachusetts Legislature to remove the city-owned, undeveloped I-4, C-2 parcel on Rogers Street from the DPA.
Both of those measure were put forward by city councilor Bruce Tobey and unanimously approved Wednesday night by the council’s Planning and Development subcommittee.
Taken together, the two measures represent the first viable attempt to materially change the DPA since the district was drawn and its regulations enacted more than three decades ago.
This is Tobey’s second attempt to remove the I-4, C-2 parcel. His first, in December 2012, went down in flames in an 8-1 council vote that had Tobey as the only supporting vote.
What has changed in the intervening period to give either or both of these measures a fighting chance?
Kirk’s support in approaching the state Legislature on Memhard’s behalf was key, as is the support of Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who are working together to draft the bill they expect to file in the early stages of the current legislative session.
But much of it undoubtedly has to do with Memhard, who was the city’s first commercial property owner to seek removal from the DPA.
While it was one thing to dispassionately debate the future of a simple plot of land, such as I-4, C-2, it was wholly another to listen to a prominent citizen spin a tale of imminent economic doom.
“The DPA is interfering with the rights of others to make a living,” council president Jackie Hardy said Wednesday night.
Wednesday night also was the tipping point for councilor Greg Verga.
Up until then, the Ward 5 city councilor said, he wasn’t really sure he could support Memhard’s quest to leave the DPA behind.
For Verga, there was a concern that allowing one property owner to bail on the DPA set a bad precedent and might compromise the integrity of the DPA and its protective goals when waterfront revitalization finally moves forward.
Then something happened: Verga, chairman of the Planning and Development subcommittee, heard Memhard’s first-hand testimony about the desperate plight of his business and the need to leave the DPA. Suddenly, the issue went beyond public policy.
“Listening to Scott speak pushed me over the fence,” Verga said Thursday. “I’m not going to waiver on it anymore. It’s something we need to do instead of telling people, ‘Suffer, you’re on your own’.”
Sean Horgan may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT