When Gloucester City Council last met on several proposed zoning changes intended to boost more housing in the seaport on March 22, a three-hour public hearing continued without a decision on the controversial amendments .
How the council is expected to proceed with its public hearing on Tuesday evening, whether or not it accepts more public comment, has become a point of contention.
City Council voted 5-4 to uphold the President’s decision that the public hearing public comment period ended at 11:30 p.m. on March 22, and they should begin with technical questions and correspondence.
After conducting business as usual in a remote Zoom meeting, with the meeting beginning at 6 p.m., Council reopened the public hearing into the rezoning at 7:38 p.m., but then spent the next half hour to determine how to proceed.
Board Chair Valerie Gilman decided that the time for public comment was over and that they would respond to technical questions and correspondence, but would not take further public comment.
But General Counsel James O’Hara Jr. appealed the president’s decision, asking the public for an opportunity to comment further.
Gilman, who represents Ward 4, said that since the hearing was adjourned last month, Gilman noted that there was only one resident who raised their hand, one resident who had already spoken. Gilman said members voted to support Ward 1 Councilor Scott Memhard’s motion, which she said was to close the public comment period and continue correspondence and technical questions when the hearing continues. Gilman said she listened to a recording of the last meeting five or six times. She asked councilors to maintain her decision.
“It’s very clear that we’ve given people enough time to provide feedback,” said general counsel Jason Grow.
General Counsel Jeff Worthley said the motion was to continue the public hearing.
“I think the mindset should be if people are there to talk, I think we should let them,” Worthley said.
Ward 2 Councilor Tracy O’Neil said there were more people who wanted to speak and she favored more time for public comment.
Memhard said he would support Gilman’s decision.
“At some point we have to move on and do our business,” said Memhard, who said he felt comfortable that the council had given residents plenty of opportunities to voice their concerns. People continue to reach out to them, he said. He didn’t think other community contributions would change his mind.
O’Hara said he agreed with Memhard, but their job as elected officials was to listen to their constituents. He said there were still 94 people on the phone at 11 p.m. last month and hands kept going up. He said fatigue was setting in, but he said people were still trying to weigh in.
“I think we owe it to voters to listen to them,” O’Hara said. General Counsel Tony Gross said he also reviewed the meeting and had questions about how the motion went. He also felt that the public comment period could continue.
Council Vice Chairman Sean Nolan, who represents Ward 5, warned that if they reopen public comments they would have to re-announce the public hearing as it has already been posted on social media and in the lawsuit minutes of the meeting that the public comment period was over. .
“A lot of the audience thinks they weren’t asked to speak at the meeting,” Nolan said.
Memhard said the intent of his motion was to end the public comment period and move on to correspondence and technical matters.
When voting on whether to uphold Gilman’s decision, a “yes” vote supported Gilman to end the public comment portion. “I won’t take it personally, we’re doing good governance,” she said.
Worthley, Ward 3 Councilman Frank Margiotta, O’Hara and O’Neil voted “no,” ending the debate over reopening public comment.
Councilors began their deliberations on the zoning changes after the newspaper deadline.
The council is considering six zoning changes, the main one being the removal of the special permit requirement for two-family conversions with exterior alterations on zoning lots. New two-family construction on vacant land and demolished two-family conversions do not require special permits, but exterior alterations do require more careful consideration.
They also watch:
- A second modification project claiming the allocation of a two-family in the RC-40, coastal residential area by special permit.
- A third claiming three-family allocation in the R-30 low-density zoning district by special permit issued by the Zoning Board of Appeals instead of the city council.
- A fourth reducing lot area requirements per unit in the R-80, R-40, RC-40 and R-30 zoning districts.
- A fifth that would create uniform frontage and lot width requirements in residential neighborhoods.
- The last was a footnote in the dimensional table regarding single-family, two-family, and three-family dwellings.
Residents who spoke out last month against the zoning changes were concerned about overcrowding, density, traffic, taxing on city infrastructure, environmental impact and changes in neighborhood character. They wanted us to do more for affordable housing.
Still others spoke out in favor of the amendments as a way to add housing and solve the city’s housing crisis.
What council didn’t have on its plate Tuesday night were proposed increases to residential height allowances and three-family entitlements in the high-density R-5 neighborhood that encompasses much of downtown.
Also on Tuesday, City Council opened the public hearing on the second batch of zoning changes that were submitted to the Planning and Development Committee earlier this month, and Gilman quickly continued the public hearing until May 10.
Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-675-2714, or [email protected]