Yes, the Gloucester City Council has already approved a new hotel overlay district covering part of Commercial Street in the historic Fort neighborhood.
And yes, the council gave residents and officials on both sides of the issue a chance to be heard before backing the proposal, opening the door to a Beauport Gloucester LLC hotel proposal on the former Birdseye property with an 8-0 approval, as Councilor Sefatia Romeo Theken abstained.
But opponents of the Fort hotel project, following the checks and balances of the city charter, indeed collected 151 certified signatures of registered voters — one more than required —to seek a new hearing. And the council has granted it for next Tuesday night. So you’d like to think that those who raised continuing concerns over this project will have one more chance to be heard, right?
Apparently not. A string of emails obtained this week by the Times shows that the council has every intention of opening the meeting and then, with a motion to close it, shut the hearing down before anyone has a chance to say a word.
Sure, City Solicitor Suzanne Egan thinks the plan is legal, and City Clerk Linda Lowe confirms that’s how Council President Jackie Hardy “plans to handle it.”
But that doesn’t make it right, especially when to comes to adhering to the spirit of the law, as residents Nathaniel Mulcahy and the Rev. Rona Tyndall noted in Thursday’s Page 1 Times story. Indeed, if the Council sticks with this arrogant game plan, it will represent a slap in the face to a group of city residents who, while seeming to hold a minority view, have every right to be heard and to make new points that councilors may well not have considered before taking their vote the night of May 8.
By now, everyone may well have heard just about every argument for or against developing a hotel on this site. While the Council held one hearing, its Planning and Development subcommittee and the Planning Board also held two nights of hearings prior to any of that, amounting to more than six hours of testimony overall.
Yet, there is a very real context to the opponents’ call for a new hearing. That’s because, in scheduling the first council hearing, the city stupidly allowed the submission of written comments right up to the meeting time that night. And Tyndall is right to suggest there was no way any of the councilors could have seen or considered a late “stockpile of evidence” for denying the zoning overlay before they voted.
Egan noted Wednesday that the Council has no obligation to do anything but open and close the hearing, suggesting that the overlay proposal itself is not before the Council for a vote — and citing that the residents have not asked for reconsideration. That, quite frankly, sounds like a bunch of legal poppycock.
If any councilor heard any new evidence that might raise new and legitimate questions about the overlay, he or she would certainly be able to seek a reconsideration vote, or seek a change to the overlay as approved.
Would that happen? Probably not — and it probably shouldn’t. While all of us are still awaiting a plan for the proposed hotel itself, and while that may raise a new round of issues when it arrives, the approval of the overlay zone and the possibility of new development on the old Birdseye site still looms as a tremendous opportunity for the entire city and its residents.
But none of that comes close to excusing the council’s plans to treat a legitimate petition request for a new hearing as it it’s some kind of joke.
And none of it excuses councilors from at least listening to residents’ new “evidence” and concerns that they may not have been part of the consideration in May.
If the Council stands by this ill-conceived hearing plan, it will merely confirm that Gloucester’s councilors really don’t want to hear any new evidence from their constituents — that, even when residents follow the city’s charter to get a new hearing, their concerns really don’t deserve to be heard.
That’s not just an insult to the Fort hotel opponents, but a shameful betrayal of the city’s democratic process as a whole.