After denying a Wellesely-based developer special permits to build condominium units at the site of the defunct Espresso’s Italian Grille, Gloucester’s City Council has had to reverse its decision.
The City Council voted Tuesday night to not appeal the state Land Court’s order to annul its original denial of permits and to immediately issue the four special permits to the Bevilacqua Company for 116 East Main St.
“While we the City Council are disappointed with this order, we are nevertheless required to follow it,” City Councilor Steve LeBlanc said Tuesday night, explaining that not appealing the judge’s order outweighed spending a lot of money to potentially come to the same conclusion.
The council’s decision to grant the special permits to Paul Bevilacqua on Tuesday came after the developer’s attorney, Arnold Cohen, appealed its Oct. 10, 2019, decision to deny the permits — claiming the denial was “unreasonable,” “capricious,” “arbitrary,” and “whimsical.”
After the lawsuit went to trial in August, Land Court Judge Howard Speicher determined on Nov. 2 that the City Council’s original decision was legally untenable and not rationally supported by facts. On these grounds, Speicher ordered the four requested permits be granted.
Before Tuesday night’s vote, the council met with its legal counsel behind closed doors to discuss the pros and cons of appealing the judge’s order. The minutes of the Nov. 17 executive session will be released when the case is closed.
Councilor Val Gilman was the only councilor to vote in opposition to not appealing not appeal Speicher’s order.
"I do believe that we should be appealing the judge’s decision. I just feel like on that night we listened to 37 residents and we listened passionately,” said Gilman, who noted that she had changed her mind about the project in 2019 when a resident’s comments captured her.
“I think that it is important for councilors to always make sure that we listen in public hearings and listen to what people say and what we learn,” she said. “Unfortunately, the judge didn’t think my comments were strongly enough worded.”
Although the council voted to not to appeal, some councilors did not do so whole-heartedly.
““I hope we learn from this process so we can cover ourselves in the future better because this is a disappointment in terms of our vote,” said Councilor Scott Memhard, who ultimately voted in favor of not appealing.
Councilor Sean Nolan spoke similarly, stating, “Unfortunately, yes.”
While the City Council must still adopt its new decision, the pending granting of permits will allow Bevilacqua to build eight condominium units at 116 E. Main St., which is more than the city ordinance allows.
"Mr. Bevilacqua is happy with the result and glad they decided not to appeal the Land Court decision," Cohen told the Times.
"The project will be very attractive and will be a valuable addition to the city," he said, adding that the building will include an affordable unit.
Cohen said process has been expensive for Bevilacqua because of the delays and legal fees.
"But he doesn't bear any grudges and is happy for the outcome," he said. "The City Council was doing their job and we exercised our rights to appeal the Land Court decision."
"The Land Court judge's decision speaks for itself," Cohen added.
When asked about the projected start date for construction at 116 East Main St., Cohen said Bevilacqua still has to go through the normal permitting process.
"He would like to get started as soon as possible," Cohen said.
Meanwhile, some residents of East Gloucester still taste what they consider to be a bitter journey.
“Basically, we are a failing democracy,” said the Rev. Richard Emmanuel of The Church at 149 East Main St.
He said the council heard the community’s opposition back in 2019 and responded accordingly.
“That is the purpose of a City Council meeting,” Emmanuel said, expressing frustration with the new decision that many neighbors and abutters disagree with.
Statement from the City Council can be read here.
Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or email@example.com.