A rendering of the Rockport Harbor Hotel, which is being proposed for downtown. Credit: Courtesy of Town of Rockport

Construction of a boutique hotel in downtown Rockport is well underway as legal challenges from a group of residents opposed to the project continue to play out in court.

An appeal of the town’s approval of the project and issuance of a building permit — as well as a lawsuit against the town — were  filed separately in court earlier this year, though both the appeal and lawsuit are now being treated as one case. A judge denied a request from opponents to temporarily halt construction this spring and work on the building has been able to occur since developers received their building permit in March. 

“We were hoping [the legal process] would take less time because we have the very pressing issue over top of all of this that the hotel does have a building permit and it’s allowed to proceed with that building permit while the legal cases are proceeding,” Kristin Collins, an attorney representing opponents of the project, said.

Despite the legal challenges surrounding the project, construction has been underway since the developers received a building permit in March. Groundwork on the site began in October of last year when the developer received an excavation permit for the project.

Since March, the skeleton of the hotel has begun to take shape, with construction crews erecting the structural steel supports for the building, as well as laying the concrete floors and completing the masonry work for the stairwell and elevator towers, according to Tyler Smith.

Still, the Rockport Harbor Hotel has faced pushback from a group of residents — now known as the Friends of Rockport — since the project was proposed in 2019.

The group feels that the planning board erred in its approval of the project. They say the 26-room is too big for downtown Rockport and that the building — being constructed on an empty lot between existing buildings — would block out views of Rockport Harbor.

The hotel is being developed by 20 Central Street LLC, which is made up of Stuart, Marianne and Tyler Smith, the local family behind Maine Sport Outfitters and several Camden hotels.

When it was initially proposed, developers planned to build a 35-room boutique hotel on the vacant lot between 18 Central Oyster Bar and Seafolk Coffee in downtown Rockport. Aftering hearing concerns from people involved with a citizen’s group — the Friends of Rockport — the developer reduced the number of rooms to 26 and removed an entire floor, although the project would still consume the entire lot.

After the town’s planning board approved the 26-room project last year, voters passed an ordinance amendment that limits the size of hotels downtown to 20 rooms. In addition to taking the appeal of the planning board’s approval to court, several residents also filed a lawsuit against the town, alleging that the town must apply the results of the August 2020 vote to the Rockport Harbor Hotel project.

This fall, the front and back facades of the building will be complete, Smith said. Work will then begin on the interior of the building. Smith said the interior work will take about a year, and then the hotel will be able to host guests.

Smith said he is not concerned about the legal challenges playing out in court, since the project has already been approved by the Rockport planning board and upheld by the zoning board of appeals.

“It is unfortunate that these plaintiffs are not able to trust and respect the town appeal process and continue to waste Town of Rockport time and money with their frivolous lawsuit,” Smith said in an email.

Smith also pointed out that when the judge, Justice Bruce Mallonee, declined to issue a temporary restraining order to halt construction, he did so because opponents did not show how they were more likely to win the overall legal case.

However, in an order issued by Mallonee last month, he said that 20 Central Street LLC has taken a risk in continuing construction while the case is pending.

“Plaintiffs may not have have presented claims justifying the preliminary relief they seek but their claims are not fanciful and the final merit of those claims as the parties brief and argue in accordance with the schedule set forth,” Mallonee wrote in the order that laid out the next steps for resolution of the the case.

Once final briefs are filed by attorneys over the next two weeks, a hearing will be scheduled for oral arguments, following which Mallonee will make his final ruling in the case.

“It’s certainly tee’d up to be resolved this fall,” Collins said.