NEWBURYPORT — A public hearing on the Institution for Savings’ reworked expansion plan ended almost as soon as it began when a virtual Planning Board meeting exceeded its attendance threshold Wednesday night and people were turned away.
The bank proposes building a two-story, 16,000-square-foot addition to its main office. The addition would border Prospect Street and Otis Place.
Many abutters have voiced their concerns about the project’s scale and the process the bank has used.
The bank recently reworked its plans, which were to be the subject of the virtual public hearing on the Zoom app Wednesday night.
A landscape architect was about five minutes into his presentation when attorney Lisa Mead noted that more than 100 people joined the meeting and about 20 more were kicked out.
Planning Director Andy Port told the board the Zoom conference had a maximum attendance level of 100 people. That maximum was exceeded within the first 20 minutes of the meeting, he said.
Port then asked to hold another public hearing on the matter in the near future. The board voted unanimously to continue the hearing until July 1.
“We will see you on July 1 with a correction to this technological glitch,” Planning Board Chairwoman Bonnie Sontag said. “I apologize for this to everybody that this has happened and you are all geared up for tonight. So, we will just start again on July 1.”
Otis Place resident Colleen Turner Secino is part of the Respect Our Historic Neighborhood citizens group she said includes about 100 abutters to the project and other residents concerned about the bank’s plans.
Turner Secino was able to join the Zoom meeting Wednesday night and said the prompt rescheduling illustrates one of her main concerns when it comes to approving a large project in the age of social distancing.
“I give the Planning Board a lot of respect for trying to do this. They really, really tried.” she said. “But when it comes to something this monumental which would impact so many different people, a virtual audio-only meeting was concerning. We warned that this was not the format and it was absolutely unsuitable for a public review of this size of a plan. This is not somebody’s deck on the back of their house.”
In a written statement, Institution for Savings CEO and President Michael Jones said simply, “We are moving on to July 1.”
According to Turner Secino, the virtual meeting format and technology discourage people from taking part.
“There are also people who are hearing or sight impaired and have language barriers,” Turner Secino said. “This wasn’t the right venue and they pushed it through and wasted a lot of peoples’ time.”
She said she believes a virtual public hearing is not acceptable and does not lend itself to what the city is trying to accomplish with it.
“This needs to be done at a time when everyone can safely meet face-to-face and not a moment before,” Turner Secino said.
In an email Thursday afternoon Port voiced his disappointment that Wednesday’s meeting needed to be postponed and stated that his department has increased its Zoom capacity.
“While unfortunate, the bank, and all those following this project, will have to wait a few more weeks,” Port wrote. “This is the cost of development permitting during ‘the time of COVID.’ We are all adapting, and just a few months ago we had never done online public meetings before - government services are now catching up with technological advances.”
To see the Planning Board 93 State St. project website: www.cityofnewburyport.com/planning-board/agenda-items/93-state-street-4
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.