BEVERLY — A proposed bill that would allow the city to lease waterfront property for a restaurant is still pending before the state Legislature.
City officials say they already have the right to lease the property for a restaurant, and in fact have signed a lease for one. But they said they are seeking approval from the Legislature as insurance against a potential lawsuit, which has been threatened by some neighbors who are opposed to the restaurant.
"My belief is the city could go ahead and lease a restaurant anyway, but this would just make it clear with legislation," Beverly state Rep. Jerry Parisella said.
George Whitney, the former chairman of the city's Harbor Management Authority, has long claimed that a lease for a restaurant would be illegal. The property — the site of a former McDonald's restaurant at 1 Water St. next to the Beverly-Salem bridge — was purchased by the city in 1996 with the help of a $483,600 state parks and recreation grant.
The use of that grant turned the property into what is called Article 97 land, referring to an amendment in the state constitution passed by voters in 1972 that preserves open space and parkland. Whitney and some of the neighbors say a 350-seat restaurant would violate that amendment.
The city's original application for the grant envisioned only a "snack bar" in the McDonald's building, which would have been turned into a "Beverly Waterfront Orientation Center." But an amended agreement between the city and the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in 2017 allows for a restaurant, as long as the first floor has public bathrooms, a takeout restaurant, and displays on the availability of public beaches and other waterfront recreational opportunities.
City Solicitor Stephanie Williams has said a restaurant would conform with Article 97 because it is the "exact purpose" for which the city acquired the land. She said a restaurant would further the city's goals of activating the waterfront, enhancing recreational opportunities there, and complementing existing maritime uses with new public amenities.
The plan is to tear down the McDonald's building and build a restaurant called Mission Boathouse. The project is awaiting approval from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which must grant a state waterways license for it to proceed.
Parisella and state Sen. Joan Lovely, of Salem, filed the legislation regarding the restaurant after the Beverly City Council passed a home-rule petition on July 7 asking for it. The bill is currently before the House committee on Municipalities and Regional Government. Parisella said there will be no public hearing due to restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, but people can write to legislators.
Parisella said he is hoping to have the bill passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker by July 31, the scheduled end of the legislative session.
"I get a lot of comments from people wondering when we're going to see a restaurant on that site," Parisella said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or email@example.com.