Neighbors Challenge Duplexes in Lakeport

LACONIA — At the urging of the Planning Board, Kevin Morrissette, who is seeking to build three duplex units on a lot in Lakeport , reluctantly agreed to reconsider the design of the project after meeting stiff opposition when the board met this week from abutters and neighbors troubled by the prospect of a multi-family complex in their neighborhood of single-family homes.

Opposition to the project came as no surprise to the board, which had a police officer on hand at the Belknap Mill where the hearing was held while the City Council met at City Hall. Last month, when the board formally accepted the proposal as complete and scheduled the public hearing, residents crowded City Hall expecting to present a petition and voice their opinions grew frustrated at being told the project would not be discussed until the public hearing.

Morrissette's brother Peter, who was not at the meeting, purchased the 1.02-acre lot at 126 Washington St., directly across the street from Leavitt Park, in January for $57,000. Soon afterward the home on the property, originally built in 1890, was demolished and the lot was cleared.

Morrissette plans to construct three identical vinyl-sided buildings placed in a row along the northwest side of the lot, with the gable end of the first building facing Washington Street, fronted by a parking area with spaces for 15 vehicles. The units would be rented. The lot lies within the "residential general" district where, with municipal water and sewer, six units per acre are permitted by the zoning ordinance.

When Warren Hutchins, who chairs the board, opened the hearing Ward 6 City Councilor Armand Bolduc, whose ward includes Lakeport, submitted the petition opposing the project signed by 115 members of the community. The councilor said that he understood project was permitted, but told the board "make sure it looks like something that belongs on Washington Street. I understand it's going to be three buildings , so I don't know how it will look like it belongs there."

After Jeff Burd of RJB Engineering of Concord described the project, board member Larry Guild set the tone for the remainder of the meeting by asking "do all the buildings have to look alike? Can you change the angle of the buildings? How does this fit into the neighborhood?" The project, he said, "has no class, no character."

When Morrissette countered, "I think the buildings look very attractive," one resident asked, "Are you going to live there, sir?"

Attorney Paul Fitzgerald, representing the Morrissettes, distributed photographs of the homes in the area, stressing that "there are a lot of different styles here. It's impossible to match the style of the neighborhood, because the style, size, color and level of maintenance differ greatly."

"They're totally ugly," said Mike Bolduc, whose property abuts the lot to the northwest. "It's a big ugly box I'm going to be looking at from my backyard. They just don't fit." He likened the project to a strip mall, an image Hutchins endorsed.

Eager to broker a compromise, board member Bill Contardo suggested that rearranging the buildings to face the street to dispel the image of a strip mall. His colleague Jerry Mailloux said "you're shoehorning these buildings on to the lot and wondered why three buildings were required.

Morrissette explained that the buildings were sited to deter activities in the front yards. Siting the buildings at an angle or parallel to the street, he said, would render the parking arrangements and traffic flow impractical. Morrissette said that the development would not be economically viable with fewer units while Fitzgerald offered that fewer but larger buildings would be less compatible with the character of the neighborhood.

Hutchins said that the project "looks like a strip mall," noted that Elm Street is a "gateway" to the city and said that the architectural sub-committee of the board would prefer the buildings be relocated..

Joe Cherry, who lives several doors from the lot, acknowledged "you can't please the entire neighborhood" and proposed that the development be screened with mature trees. He also raised concerns about increased traffic through the neighborhood, warning that "Washington Street could become a racetrack," and the impact of the project on the value of nearby properties. "What the people want, " he told the board, "is the house that is gone," remarking that "ironically it survived the Lakeport fire, but not this."

Robert McCallum of School Street commented, "It's not a question of pleasing everyone. This eyesore isn't pleasing anybody."

"What is needed," Hutchins told Morrissette, "is more discussion between you and the board and the public. If there is a motion to approve or disapprove the application," he continued, "you might not be happy with the outcome."

Fitzgerald said that if the board believed further conversation would be helpful, "we'll agree with significant reluctance and within some limitations," namely that the number of units and buildings is not reduced.

Hutchins said that the outstanding issues were the placement of the buildings as well as the landscaping, screening and fencing of the property. In addition, he asked that the restrictions incorporated in the rental agreements, such as repairing vehicles and storing equipment, be presented to the board.

The board voted unanimously to continue the public hearing to its meeting in June.