A loud groan rose from the dozens of residents and business owners gathered to oppose a rezoning of the Fort neighborhood when city councilors called for their input and help in crafting a more palatable plan.

Rallied against the proposal by a shared opposition to condominiums and hotels, the neighborhood was hoping the plan — like so many other zoning reform ideas drawn up to bring relief to development-minded property owners — would die outright Tuesday night.

Given the misgivings about the plan among councilors and seven-vote super-majority needed to approve it, an up or down vote Tuesday would surely have meant the end of the proposal.

But spurred by Ward 4 Councilor Jackie Hardy's assessment that a compromise on the zoning plan was "close," the council referred the issue back to the Planning and Development Committee, chaired by Hardy, for more work.

Reaction in the room indicated that more hearings on the issue were not what those gathered had in mind.

But while the extended life for the rezoning drew sighs, the promise from Council President Bruce Tobey that elements of the proposal allowing a hotel had indeed been exorcised from the plan drew cheers.

"It is out, out, out," Tobey said of the hotel, believed by many to be dead weeks ago, despite a last-minute push by Mayor Carolyn Kirk on Tuesday night.

In voting to take another stab at the rezoning, councilors argued that the dozens of hours of work spent changing, studying and debating the plan should not be thrown out with the possibility of a deal within reach.

"I hear everyone's angst," Hardy said. "But I think we are this close to something better for the city."

But from the testimonies and arguments offered up Tuesday, it was unclear how much common ground existed on the issue or whether there is any desire among stakeholders to reach a compromise.

"This hotel or zoning change will change your life down that Fort," Ward 2 Councilor Gus Foote said. "It is a tool that will hurt the fishing industry and the Fort. I walked with St. Peter down there. 'Close' is what takes the harbor away."

The rezoning plan is "a bad idea, not complete and not necessary," Fort Square resident Bill Johnson said. "What are we really trying to accomplish? Unless we want to break up our homes and go condo, it won't do much for us."

The zoning plan would create a Fort overlay district, and allow a tightly limited avenue for residential and mixed use developments now locked out by the Marine Industrial zoning that covers the area, including the pre-existing, non-conforming neighborhood there.

Property owners seeking to build a non-marine industrial use in the overlay could, under the plan, apply for a special permit from the City Council to do so.

The latest in a long line of zoning proposals for the area stretching back decades, the overlay district replaced a four-zone plan submitted by the Kirk administration, centered around a hotel on the former Birds Eye factory site, that met with withering criticism from the neighborhood.

But even though it is in many ways similar to a "marine industrial plus" proposal put forward by property owners in response to the mayor's plan, the Planning Board's overlay has also drawn fire.

Unpopular with residents for being too restrictive and requiring a special permit, some Commercial Street business owners have argued that any new residential uses will bring quality-of-life complaints, a forced beautification and eventual expulsion of their brine-belt businesses.

"Is this rezoning about new taxes and jobs, or about pleasing the eye?" said Ann Molloy of Neptune's Harvest.

For many skeptical residents from other parts of the city, the rezoning has signified gentrification and a departure from the idiosyncratic, rough-edged character the city has cultivated through hundreds of years as a fishing port.

But some Fort marine-based business owners, suffering from the shrinking of the fishing fleet and looking for ways to make money off of their heavily restricted land, have welcomed the plan — along with changes to the state's Designated Port Area limits — as potential relief.

The council's move Tuesday leaves the city with 90 days to find changes to the plan that will make it attractive to more people in the neighborhood before bringing it back for another vote. The mixed response to the call for more dialogue on the issue raises the question of whether those within the Fort neighborhood have any interest in making a deal.

"I don't see where 90 more days will make a difference," Councilor Philip Devlin said.

Patrick Anderson can be reached at panderson@gloucestertimes.com

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