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 reversed Rockport’s issuance of a building permit for an embattled downtown hotel project. Developers have been entangled in a legal battle since shortly after the project was approved.

In his order on Monday, Justice Bruce Mallonee didn’t issue an injunction to stop construction pending the reconsideration of the project by the town’s planning board.However without a building permit, work on the Rockport Harbor Hotel cannot continue, according to Rockport Town Manager Jon Duke.

The Rockport Planning Board could take up the court-ordered review of several project elements ― including parking and architectural aspects ― as early as this month, Duke said. Another building permit cannot be issued for the project until this review is completed and the site plan application is once again approved.

“My feeling and I think our code officer’s feeling, [is] that really, we are in a position where without a permit there’s no work. If someone wants to work without a permit, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it but at this point there’s no permit on that property,” Duke said.

Construction of the Rockport Harbor Hotel has been underway for a year despite the ongoing legal challenges and the exterior of the building appears to be largely completed. On Tuesday afternoon, lights were on inside the partially built hotel and people appeared to be inside, though it’s unclear what work, if any, was being done.

An attorney representing the developer, 20 Central Street LLC, said Tuesday that construction is not moving forward.

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

The hotel is being built on what used to be a vacant lot wedged between a restaurant and former coffee shop in downtown Rockport. When it was initially proposed in 2019, developers planned to build a 35-room boutique hotel. Aftering hearing concerns from residents, the number of rooms was reduced to 26, although the project would still consume the entire lot.

Last month, Mallonee ruled that the results of the August 2020 referendum must apply to the project, even though it gained approval before the referendum. This means that the hotel must contain six fewer rooms than planned. In this December ruling, Mallonee also remanded the project back to the Rockport planning board for further review of parking and architectural elements.

With Monday’s ruling vacating the building permit, Mallonee sent the permit application back to the town’s code enforcement officer for action following the planning board’s further review of the project.

“My clients are encouraged by this ruling and sincerely hope that the developer and the town will approach this further review process with the aim of better addressing this project’s impacts on the neighborhood,” Kristin Collins, the attorney working with the Friends of Rockport, said in a statement Monday.

On Tuesday, the town’s code enforcement officer sent an email to 20 Central Street LLC and its attorney notifying them that the building permit has been vacated and that work being done under the permit must stop.

The code enforcement officer, Scott Bickford, said this was more intended to enforce an agreement between all parties that the building permit is no longer valid, than to serve as a formal stop work order ― which would require going to the construction site and posting a stop work notice.

“We’re not taking any additional action to issue a stop work [order] because there is no permit. If there was a situation we’d cross that bridge, but that’s not the situation we’re in,” Duke said. “Our expectation is that there wouldn’t be any further work.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the Rockport Planning Board.