Ed Silverman, who lives on Bass Rocks, said that, if he saw a proposal for expanding the Atlantis or the Bass Rocks Ocean Inn, he'd be standing in line supporting it.
But, the overlay zone that supporters said would let the inn carry out that expansion has sent him to the other side.
The overlay, Silverman said, isn't an expansion proposal, but something that bypasses the usual zoning reviews and safeguards for Back Shore residents.
"The reason for those very stringent zoning requirements," he said during a hearing on the proposed hotel overlay zone last Thursday night, "is that the area is fragile environmentally and architecturally."
Atlantic Road, said Damon Cummings, is one of the city's ideal spots for hotels. He lived in the neighborhood when The Moorland and the Thorwald hotels were still standing. The large hotels, he said, didn't detract from the neighborhood, and the ones there now are less intrusive than the ones that were there before.
"If we're going to have hotels in Gloucester, two places have worked — Bass Rocks and Magnolia." Cummings said, "It sure beats putting a large hotel across from three fish plants."
They and other residents were among the speakers at a joint Planning Board and council Planning and Development subcommittee hearing regarding a hotel overlay district proposal for the Atlantis Oceanfront Inn and the Bass Rocks Ocean Inn. The board continued the hearing until May 17.
If approved, the overlay proposal would allow the Atlantis Oceanfront Inn and the Bass Rocks Ocean Inn to expand, modify, or replace their buildings on Atlantic Road. The companies pay almost $60,000 in annual real estate taxes to the city and around $124,000 in room tax, officials said. The road's residential zoning, with the inns operating as non-conforming uses, effectively prevents the hotels from expanding. Both inns are seasonal, and opened Friday.
The overlay would allow a 30 percent expansion in the number of guest units at both buildings by right, and an expansion to 45 feet in height.
So long as the owners stay within the overlay's dimensional requirements and receive a building permit, they could build up to that limit, the company's attorney, Michael Faherty said, without requiring a separate City Council special permit or a Planning Board major project review.
A 30 percent expansion at Bass Rocks means the hotel could go from 54 to 70 rooms, while Atlantis would go from 40 to 52 rooms. During the summer months, at least, they can fill the additional rooms and then some, Faherty said.
Without the overlay, however, the hotels can't get any larger than they are, Faherty said.
The hotels were built in the early 1960s. While the zoning was still residential then, the board permitted both hotels. But, in the late 1960s, the zoning changed and height, setback, lot area, and open space requirements got a lot more strict, he said.
Both hotels operate as non-conforming uses right now, said Faherty, and to be conforming they'd need a few acres of space to satisfy the requirements for what's there now, let alone any expansions.
The current zoning requirements, he said, just aren't realistic.
A by-right expansion, he said, lets the companies avoid taking a chance on three types of legislative relief for the project. Under the standard zoning, he said, the motels would have to apply for a Zoning Board of Appeals special permit, variances, and a city council special permit.
"It's not having to take a chance on three levels of relief that's (ultimately) going to be a lawsuit," Faherty said.
City Councilor Paul McGeary and Gregg Cadematori, Planning Director, noted that, under the proposed overlay, a project with more than a 30 percent jump in guest units would require a major project review. Faherty said if it's allowed as a matter of right, it doesn't need a permit or a major project review.
"We think this works" said Faherty, "and we do think it's required for competitiveness to upgrade facilities to meet current market."
Bob Ryan, Cape Ann Transit Authority chief, said he saw these hotels go up in 1960s. The stretch of the Back Shore from Moorland to Atlantic Road had 700 hotel rooms on it. Now, he said, it has about 91, the majority of them at the Atlantis and Bass Rocks. Ryan said the two hotels make up about 20 percent of the city's total hotel rooms. The owners of the motels, he said, run excellent businesses.
"It's going to create more jobs," he said, "how many, I don't know, but increased rooms means increased labor."
Regardless of what kind of people the owners are, however, their merits don't affect the zoning, said attorney Ralph Pino, representing abutters Jane and Michael Fonzo.
The overlay stays with the property, not the people who own it, Pino added. The uses proposed in the overlay, he said, are the kind of uses that need to be supervised.
"No one will have a bit of say into what that is going to be," Pino said.
As proposed, he said, the overlay zone would give the inn owners a "blank check" without studies that are required by a major project review. The intent of the overlay district, he argued, is to avoid the zoning process.
Jane Fonzo, who lives next to the Atlantis, said neighbors have a right to be informed about what's being built next to them and what it will do to views, traffic, and sewerage. She said it seems that the owners don't want public input.
"Do we not have a right to be informed of changes?" Fonzo said.
But Ted Shevieck, who said he's lived on Atlantic Road for 11 years, said the city should support those motor inns and let them compete.
"We should reward the loyalty of 50 years of business," he said.
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.