By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The City Council this week agreed to refer a proposal to redraw the zoning map at The Weirs to the Planning Board with a request that it address the major elements of the plan by the middle of October.
Intended to encourage commercial development, the proposal would designate a corridor, 800 feet wide, along both sides of US Route 3 and NH Route 11-B between the Meredith town line and White Oaks Road, within which residential dwellings would be confined to the upper stories of buildings that house commercial space on the ground floor.
Mayor Ed Engler, the architect of the proposal, noted that commercial property represents a very small share of the city's tax base. In fact, commercial property accounts for only 15.8 percent of the total assessed valuation. Among the 13 cities in the state, only in Berlin at 12.1 percent and Franklin at 13.4 percent is commercial property a smaller portion of the tax base. At the same time, the mayor noted that the lion's share of vacant or underused lots suited to commercial development are in the Commercial Resort District, which encompasses The Weirs.
The Commercial Resort District begins on Lake Street, just south of its junction with White Oaks Road, extends northward along Weirs Boulevard, includes the center of the Weirs and runs either side of Endicott Street North (US Route 3) to the Meredith town line. It also includes property along both sides of Endicott Street East (NH Route 11-B) east of the roundabout to just beyond the Weirs Community Center. Both specified commercial and residential uses are permitted throughout the district.
Engler suggests dividing the district into two parts by carving a Commercial Resort Corridor District, designated CR2, out from the existing Commercial Resort District, which would become CR1. The corridor would be defined as the area extending 400 feet from either side of the center line of Endicott Street North (US Route 3) and Endicott Street East (NH Route 11-B) between the Meredith town line to the west and the center of the intersection with White Oaks Road to the east.
The Commercial Resort Corridor District, he proposes, "is intended for the use primarily of commercial establishments catering to the dining, lodging and recreational needs of tourists and seasonal/retired residents. It is also seen as home to comparable commercial establishments serving the general population of the city and region." At the same time, he suggests redefining the Commercial Resort District as "primarily intended for use by commercial establishments catering to the dining, lodging and recreational needs of tourists and single-family, townhouse, condominium and apartment housing for seasonal/retired residents."
Within the corridor residential development, which is currently permitted throughout the Commercial Resort District, would be confined to spaces "not less than 20 feet above ground level, provided that at least a single, ground-level floor of the same building, with the same or larger footprint, is devoted to a permitted commercial use." In other words, along both sides of the corridor residential development would be restricted to the upper level of buildings and then only if the ground floor of the same building were put to commercial use.
In both the Commercial Resort Corridor and Commercial Resort districts, Engler recommends eliminating any requirement to set aside a portion of lots as green space when the property is put to commercial use. The minimum of 60 percent of green space would remain for residential uses in the Commercial Resort District (CR1). He called the green space requirement "arbitrary and unnecessary" and said it is "a significant barrier to commercial development."
Engler also proposed setting the maximum height of buildings in the Commercial Resort Corridor District at 100 feet while the maximum height of residential and commercial structures would remain 35 feet and 60 feet respectively in the Commercial Resort District.
Within the Commercial Resort Corridor District, restaurants, hotels, cinemas, arcades, nightclubs, stores, studios, galleries, banks, offices and marine sales and services stores would all be permitted. But, campgrounds, flea markets, shopping centers, some services, and commercial and industrial uses would be excluded.
Nearly two years ago, the City Council asked the Planning Board to reconsider the mix of uses within the Commercial Resort District. Last year, the board proposed changes that would have excluded commercial development in the southern reach of the district along Weirs Boulevard along with changes to the table of permitted uses.
The council rejected the board's proposal, but Engler addressed changes to the schedule of permitted uses in the Commercial Resort District the board proposed. Both accessory apartments and greenhouses would be permitted with a conditional use permit, as the Planning Board suggested. Storage of travel trailers trailers, campers and boats, which the Planning Board proposed permitting by special exception, Engler would permit by right, along with indoor storage, which the board recommended excluding. All three uses, considered residential accessory uses, he suggested, should not be permitted in the Commercial Resort Corridor District.
Engler agreed with the Planning Board that bed-and-breakfasts should be permitted by right in the Commercial Resort District, but not in the Commercial Resort Corridor District. Likewise, he agreed with the Planning Board to exclude automobile sales and service from the Commercial Resort District, but, contrary to the board, proposed permitting both storage of travel trailers, campers and boats and long-term vehicle storage.
Engler said that that in referring the proposal to the Planning Board "I hope they will handle it in a timely manner."
Councilors Henry Lipman (Ward 3) and Bob Hamel (Ward 5) added a measure of urgency to the process. Lipman expressed concern that if the process were prolonged, projects at odds with the proposed change in the zoning ordinance could be undertaken under the existing ordinance before the changes are adopted. Hamel agreed, suggesting the plan be referred to Planning Board as soon as possible.
City Manager Scott Myers explained that once the Planning Board prepares a specific amendment to the zoning ordinance and schedules a public hearing, the Planning Department would no longer be obliged to accept applications for projects conforming to the existing ordinance. He suggested that the City Council and the Planning Board could hold a joint workshop before the board meets in September. That, he said, would provide the board time to refer the issue to its Zoning Task Force, which could report to the full board in October.
Only Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), who serves as the council's liaison to the Planning Board, dissented when the council resolved "to endorse the concept of adding a Commercial resort Corridor (CR2) District to the Zoning Ordinance" and to refer the proposal to the Planning Board in the expectation that the board would address its major elements by the middle of October.