Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A New Look for Rockport?

The Peanut Gallery

Imagine a large residence that stretches itself along Rockport’s rocky shoreline, so that Rockport’s appearance, from the land and from the sea, is forever changed.  [The image shown inserted in the photo does not represent the structure proposed.]

            On Thursday, April 4th Ron Roma appeared before the Rockport Planning Board at a Public Hearing to consider his application for Site Plan Review for his plan to build a large  (12,000 sq. ft. gross floor area) residence on the shoreline next to the Yankee Clipper, a local inn.
            The next morning, the Gloucester Daily Times was unable to find space to publish a news story about the hearing, but it did have an editorial, which served to suggest that the whole idea of “Site Plan Review” is just an empty exercise. 

April 5, 2013
Editorial: A 'review' with no resolve
Gloucester Daily Times

The Rockport Planning Board hosted a “site plan review” hearing Thursday night regarding homeowner Ron Roma’s plans to build a second single-family home on his combined property at 129 Granite St.

That’s because, under a Rockport bylaw, a site plan review is required for any house covering more than 6,000 square feet, and Roma’s new projects calls for a house at 12,000 square feet. And neighbors, who have long decried Roma’s original brick house because, well, they just don’t like it – or that it took the place of an older home — raised a number of questions about the property.

But the fact is, Roma’s project clearly complies with town zoning bylaws and conservation mandates; he already has clearance from the town’s Conservation Commission. And while there may be some benefit to letting neighbors and other town residents know what type of work is being done at the site, the truth is, Roma has every right to listen to their input, and say thanks but no thanks for their purported “help.”

That’s because the town’s site plan review format has no means of addressing neighbors’ concerns — and as long as a project complies with zoning and other bylaws, it shouldn’t. Like an almost laughable “demolition delay” bylaw Town Meeting attendees ultimately blew out of the water last year, it has no apparent goal, other than to make a property owner and developer squirm over a perfectly permissible project on his or her own land.

Roma makes some good points when he notes that he has largely hired local builders and other contractors to work at the site, now and in the past. And his project will boost the town’s tax intake on the property as well — because he is allowed and permitted to build on his land within town regulations, and that should be one bottom line.

The other bottom line is the need for the town to scrap “reviews” such as this that have no meaningful means to a resolution — or any real resolve.

I replied with the following letter:

GDT Letter to the Editor, Tuesday, April 9, 2013: “Rockport Site Plan Review serves real purpose”   [paragraphs in blue were omitted from the version that appeared in the Gloucester Times.]

Dear Editor,

I am sincerely thankful that Ray Lamont is not on the Rockport Planning Board.  Your dismissive editorial pretty much trashes our Site Plan Review, and the whole concept of public review. [GDT Editorial: "A 'review' with no resolve" April 5, 2013.]

You state: “the fact is, Roma’s project clearly complies with town zoning bylaws and
conservation mandates. And while there may be some benefit to letting neighbors and other town residents know what type of work is being done at the site, the truth is, Roma has every right to listen to their input, and say thanks but no thanks for their purported ‘help.’”

We have had Site Plan Review in place for over a decade, and in that time, we have reviewed, and approved some fairly large projects for our town.  You are quite right that a project may comply with zoning, but Site Plan Review is intended for projects that are so large that they will have a large impact upon the town and its other residents.  Site Plan Review usually develops into a “conversation” between ladies and gentlemen who want to create a new structure, and the Planning Board, assisted by the public.  The essence of Site Plan Review is to develop a project that fits the town and the particular place where the site is located. 

When the Planning Board conducted Site Plan Review for the Shalin Liu Performance Center, the applicants appeared before the Board in public hearings, in a very respectful manner.  They patiently listened to questions and criticisms by townspeople, and prepared polite and thorough answers.  There were people who thought that such a large project in the middle of our small town would be disastrous.  The applicant, working with the Planning Board, made small changes and adjustments to their plan to meet these concerns, where it was possible.  They adjusted their work hours to permit flow of pedestrian traffic downtown.  In every way, they worked to satisfy not only zoning requirements but the need to become a cooperative neighbor. 

It was the same with the Granite Savings Bank, when they built their new building on upper Main Street.  The Planning Board, the applicant and the public worked together in the same amicable way in the long process for Old Colony Maritime.  That project, nearly killed by a serial litigator, is now being brought to life in different form by a new applicant. 

Aerial view of the shoreline just east of the projected building.  In this photo, another of Mr. Roma’s large brick residences (121 Granite St.) is shown, under construction, at right. 

You note that townspeople “have long decried Roma’s original brick house because, well, they just don’t like it – or that it took the place of an older home…”   That project, at 121 Granite Street, was designed to be just small enough to avoid Site Plan Review.  We understand that the applicant, while the building was still under construction, appeared one day in a helicopter, and seemed to be attempting to land on the flat roof of his new home.  The large bulk of this brick structure suggested to townspeople, and the Planning Board, that perhaps criteria for Site Plan Review should be widened to review such a structure. 

Town Meeting subsequently approved measures that would preclude future buildings like the brick “helopad.” 

You continued, stating that Mr. Roma “is allowed and permitted to build on his land within town regulations, and that should be one bottom line.”  

Indeed, that is correct.  And Site Plan Review is a part of those “town regulations.”  So is the “annoying” public review.   Mr. Roma showed his respect for the public at Thursday night’s public hearing.  He stated that he could plant trees in his yard any way he wanted, and the people in the hearing room muttered comments.  He then asked the Planning Board chairman if he would quiet the “Peanut Gallery.” 

In the past, the public have tremendously aided new projects heard by the Planning Board.  Sometimes they have pointed out items that had eluded town officials, and just as importantly, members of the public have had a chance to see how the applicant has tried to comply not only with strict regulations but with things that just make the project fit into the neighborhood more smoothly.

You end your editorial with: “The other bottom line is the need for the town to scrap “reviews” such as this that have no meaningful means to a resolution — or any real resolve.

There will be a resolution.  We just hope that the applicant in this case recognizes that it is a whole lot more fun to live in Rockport when you don’t storm into town acting like you already owned the place. 


Samuel W. Coulbourn
7 Mill Lane

Following is the statement of Greg Blaha, abutter, which he read at the meeting of the Rockport Planning Board, during a public hearing in the case of a Site Plan Review for a residence at 129 Granite St.

Planning Board Meeting 4/18/13

Continued Hearing re: Site Plan Review for proposed Roma III project at 129 Granite St.

Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to speak.
I am Greg Blaha of 133 Granite St.  I spoke at the last meeting on April 4th and want to note that my wife Sarah and I greatly appreciate the encouragement and support that has been extended to us by our neighbors – it’s good to know that so many share our concerns.

Tonight’s meeting is extremely important, because it not only affects all in this room, but could be a turning point for our town of Rockport.  At the last meeting, we voiced concerns and made some suggestions as to the need to minimize the adverse impacts of the proposed project - there are many.  I would like to be more specific on some of these issues tonight.

As noted at the last meeting, we are alarmed by the pace and manner in which this project has been conducted so far, and we have grave concerns going forward.

Since the last meeting, an attempt was made last week to circumvent the Site Plan Review process by obtaining a demolition permit for this project - despite the fact that Site Plan Review is not complete.  Demolition is included under Site Plan Review Section E.1.f. in our town bylaws, and in this case, would also fall under additional land disturbance – clearly the purview of Site Plan Review.  We have appealed the decision of the building inspector to issue any permit prior to completion of Site Plan Review to the Zoning Board of Appeals.  We request that the town be vigilant in ensuring that all appropriate processes are followed.  We again submit that the Rockport Conservation Commission may also wish to revisit its decision regarding the Roma project.  We also note that as of Tuesday this week, no new or revised plans were available to the public at the Town Clerk’s office for review prior to this hearing.

It is our understanding that to date Roma III has not filed a complete Site Plan application with your Board.  In order to avoid any confusion we ask you to rule clearly, for the record, that the time limit for Site Plan Review has not yet begun to run because you have not received a complete application from Roma III.

Site Plan Review is a very important process.  Once a project triggers Site Plan Review, it allows towns to scrutinize large-impact projects such as this, according to criteria that would not usually be applied to smaller projects.  It also allows towns to impose restrictions – including dimensional requirements - that may exceed minimum zoning requirements. 

There is an important example of such a case several years ago in Marblehead (Muldoon v. Planning Board of Marblehead), in which a very large brick single-family house was proposed.  We provided a written summary of this case at the last meeting. The town successfully used Site Plan Review to impose dimensional requirements – including requiring increased setbacks of 30 feet (compared to the 8 foot minimum stated in the zoning laws), and to require that the home be faced with clapboard or shingle, rather than brick.  This case has since been cited in subsequent legal cases in other towns, and the courts in Massachusetts have repeatedly upheld the right of town planning boards to use Site Plan Review to lessen the negative impacts on neighborhoods of proposed projects such as the one before us tonight.  A letter by Rockport Town Counsel dated Feb 7, 2012 references this case, but does not discuss follow-up, specifically that the case has been upheld and sited [cited] many times since then.

In addition to the requests we made in our remarks at the last meeting, we request the following specific conditions regarding the proposed construction which are relevant to site plan review.

Land disturbance/Blasting/Stone walls
Section H 1.0 requires that projects “Minimize the amount of “disturbance of land” … minimize the need for blasting, the number of removed trees 24 or more inches in circumference, the length of removed stone walls, … minimize soil erosion, impermeable surfaces and any threat of air, water, or noise pollution.”

Given the stated objective to “Minimize the need for blasting,”
- Please minimize blasting which may threaten surrounding homes, their foundations, yards, stone walls, existing water and sewer lines, and the coastal bank
- Please do not allow the extra blasting proposed in order to have a full basement and to evade height restrictions and build a taller, bigger structure

Regarding the other objectives detailed in section 1.0,
- Please require more specific justification for the significant amount of land disturbance and over 200 ft of concrete retaining walls on what is currently mostly level land
- Please require that historic stone walls along our property line be protected and any concrete retaining walls not be visible
- Please require preservation of mature plantings – especially trees along our property lines

Section H.1.2 of Site Plan review states there should be efforts to “Minimize obstruction of scenic views.” 
- Please take into account the location and size of structures and plantings in such a way as to minimize the adverse impacts on scenic views
- Please ensure neighbors’ ongoing access to sunlight – especially southern exposures in garden areas - and open air.

Amount of paved surface
Covered under section 1.0 ‘minimize…impermeable surfaces’ and section 1.3 ‘Minimize paved surfaces’
- Please require less paved area, possibly a permeable driveway, such as shell or gravel to decrease the amount of blacktop

Character and Scale
Item H.1.7 of the goal of Site Plan Review is to “Minimize departure from the character and scale of buildings in the vicinity as viewed from public and private ways and places, and abutting property.” 

As to character:
- Please require that the proposed structure be shingle, shake and/or clapboard, not brick. (as in the Muldoon case in Marblehead

Regarding Scale, we request that the Planning Board:
- Limit the height of any structure to a true 2.5 stories, and not allow 3 stories, or any enormous ‘half-story’ that is in itself larger than an entire ‘large’ house in the surrounding area
- Limit the total height to a maximum of 30 feet and disallow the excessive blasting that has been proposed to get around the height restriction
- Limit the overall size and scale of the building beyond the minimum required by zoning, taking into account the scale of residential homes in the surrounding neighborhood
- Impose dimensional requirements by requiring all setbacks to be at least 25 ft, as allowed under Massachusetts law, as in the Marblehead case

Demolition/Construction process
In addition to demolition being covered under Section E.1.f of the site plan review, section
H 1.8 states the objective to ‘Minimize any aspect of the development that could constitute a nuisance due to air and water pollution, flood, noise, odor, dust, or vibration.’  Pursuant to this,
- Please require that all utilities, air conditioners, and other mechanicals be clearly shown on the site plan.  Please require that air conditioner condensers and other mechanicals which are sources of noise pollution as well as being unattractive be located well away from neighboring property lines
- Please require a detailed plan to limit dust, debris, noise, etc and other impacts on neighboring properties
- Please limit work done on Saturdays during the summer season, such as no blasting, and no excessive noise, dust or mess
- Please require that abutters be contacted when their property is damaged – as ours has been already – by activities associated with this project, and require that a simple and timely process be in place for complaint resolution
- Please require that more detailed information be made available to neighbors/abutters as to construction staging and timing.

We remain very concerned that easements over our property are being used inappropriately to access the combined lot at 129 Granite St.. Mr. Roma has misstated the easements running over our property in the materials submitted by him to the Planning Board. We have attempted, without success, to schedule a meeting with Roma III and our respective lawyers.  Tonight we again ask Roma III to sit down with us and our legal counsel to address the issues we raised with Roma III, through counsel, in writing, more than two weeks ago.  We would appreciate an opportunity to work together to resolve these issues. 

The Planning Board should stipulate in their Site Plan conditions that all access to/egress from the worksite, and access to and from the completed residence, be exclusively via 129 Granite St’s own frontage on Granite St.  In addition, all vehicles, persons, construction equipment, and materials should be contained within 129 Granite St at all times.

It was noted at the last meeting that the Rockport Planning Board has conducted Site Plan Review for other large homes, but this case includes unique challenges.  This proposal is not for a compound on a secluded many-acre lot.  It is a proposal for a massive private home situated in a densely populated, residential neighborhood.  The proposed appearance is a huge deviation from the surrounding neighborhood.  And the home will be extremely visible – from Granite St/Route 127, from at least 91 other residential parcels (by their own calculation), from the neighboring Yankee Clipper Inn, from downtown Rockport/Bearskin Neck, and from the water.  Because of its immense size, location on a main road and jutting out into Sandy Bay, and the fact that it will not (as currently designed) blend in with its surroundings, this structure could become the most prominent landmark on Rockport’s coastline – is this what Rockport wants to be known for? 

If you do not act to impose reasonable limits – of size, of materials, and of access, you will have established a dangerous precedent that has the potential to change the character and appearance of Rockport.  Rockport reaps great rewards – measurable in real dollars to local businesses and local workers -- from its character, its appearance and its architecture.  We should not risk this.

This is not about whether homeowners have the right to build a home on property they own – they do.   But processes such as Site Plan Review exist for good reason, and when a project triggers site plan review, it should be examined very closely.  This is about whether one owner should be allowed to impose such a huge and negative impact on our neighborhood, our town, and its future. By acting – or failing to act – this Planning Board is making a choice about the future of Rockport.

Our Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that local planning boards can use Site Plan Review to alter the course of unfortunate situations like this.  I urge our Planning Board to please do so.  Planning Boards are legally allowed to impose dimensional requirements on a project that are more restrictive than those contained in local bylaws; they are also allowed to require the use of building material - such as clapboard or shingle - that are in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.  They are allowed to impose conditions in all the areas described under Site Plan Review in our bylaws.

Please do this.  Please protect our neighborhood – increase the setbacks, limit the height and size of the building, preserve neighborhood views of the water and from the water, help maintain peace and quiet, limit access to the ample, available frontage on Granite Street, and require materials that are in keeping with the character of the Rockport we love.

Thank you.


We sincerely hope that the Planning Board will recognize that it alone has the opportunity and the responsibility to protect  our Town from the caprice of a newcomer who has the money to build what many might consider an outsize house, right smack on Rockport’s Atlantic shoreline. 

Mr. Roma has the right to build a huge home, but Site Plan Review requires due consideration be given to how the proposed structure fits into the neighborhood.  As one abutter said at the Planning Board hearing on April 5th, this building “looks like a Marriott.”   Now, there’s nothing wrong with Marriott hotels, but right next to Mr. Roma’s proposed home is an actual inn, The Yankee Clipper, that indeed does fit in with the “character and scale of the neighborhood.”

We hope that Mr. Roma will realize that the other 7500 residents of Rockport are not just yokels in “The Peanut Gallery”, but citizens who love our Town.

Samuel W. Coulbourn

1 comment:

  1. I can't understand why anyone would want to obliterate our shoreline(as a long time resident) in such a manner. His first project has already caused uproars. This is not "how to win friends and influence people" And, it is difficult to understand why anyone wishes to move here and change the setting of why he moved here in the first place. This does happen here, periodically, in this community, and each "invader" appears to have the same motive, "bigger is better". I love this town, its shoreline and it's people, and I am sad.