A judge has ruled that the Rockport Harbor Hotel, pictured above, must go back to the town's planning board for further review. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

A judge has ruled that a Rockport hotel development must contain six fewer rooms than planned and developers must go back to the town’s planning board for further review of parking plans and architectural components.

It is not immediately clear what the Dec. 2 ruling from Justice Bruce Mallonee means for the future of the Rockport Harbor Hotel, which has been under construction since earlier this year. In his ruling, Mallonee said that a hearing will be held to determine the specifics of the relief that will be awarded to the Friends of Rockport.

As of Friday afternoon, a hearing had not yet been scheduled.

The legal battle surrounding the Rockport Harbor Hotel began in court earlier this year. A group of neighbors ― called the Friends of Rockport ― filed a lawsuit to have the town apply the results of an August 2020 referendum that placed a 20-room cap on downtown hotels and an appeal in an attempt to have the planning board’s approval of the project overturned. Both the lawsuit and the appeal were filed in early 2021 and have been treated as a single case.

The group’s attorney, Kristin Collins, said she will ask the judge to have developers halt construction.

A representative of 20 Central Street LLC ― the project developer ― could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

“This is definitely a victory. This case has always been about respecting the will of the voters, and respecting the planning board’s duties under the local ordinances.  The judge has ruled that the petitioned ordinance amendments must be respected, and that the planning board has to take a more critical look at the important issues of architectural harmony and parking,” Collins said.

When it was initially proposed in 2019, developers planned to build a 35-room boutique hotel on the vacant lot wedged between 18 Central Oyster Bar and a former coffee shop in downtown Rockport. Aftering hearing concerns from people involved with 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 in February 2020 voters passed an ordinance amendment in August 2020 that limits the size of hotels downtown to 20 rooms. At the same time voters also approved requiring projects like the Rockport Harbor Hotel to conduct an independent parking study.

In his ruling, Mallonee agreed with the Friends of Rockport that the results of the August 2020 referendum must be applied to the Rockport Harbor Hotel, despite the project being approved prior to the town vote.

Additionally, Mallonee found that the Rockport Planning Board must take a second look at its review of the parking plans for the hotel.

The board had previously found that there were an existing 25 parking spaces in Rockport available for the hotel to use. However, the Friends of Rockport have argued those spaces have already been allocated for other uses.

Mallonee’s ruling also instructs the Rockport Planning Board to conduct a more thorough review of whether or not the balconies on the hotel are in architectural harmony with the existing buildings.

It is not clear when the planning board will take up review of these project elements again, as instructed in the ruling. Mallonee said “the board might find it impractical to act before final relief is entered in the civil matter but setting its own schedule is of course its prerogative.”

A message left for Rockport Town Manager Jon Duke was not immediately returned Friday afternoon.

“The 20-room limit will alleviate some of the negative impacts on the downtown, and I have faith that the planning board will address the remanded issues with the carefulness they demand,” Collins said.