LACONIA — The Laconia City Council unanimously rejected a proposed rezoning of Weirs Boulevard Monday night following a lengthy public hearing during which business owners affected by the proposed changes sharply criticized the Planning Board's recommended rezoning plan.
The proposal would have rezoned about 2.5 miles of the boulevard south of the Naswa resort to White Oaks Road from Commercial Resort (CR) to Shorefront Residential (SFR) and an area on Lake Street from the Margate Resort Commercial Resort to Commercial. It also changed 10 permitted uses within the new district.
The plan was developed by the city's Zoning Task Force over the winter in response to a City Council request to the Planning Board for a review of all possible land uses within the CR district, which extends northward from White Oaks Road to the Meredith town line and also east along Rte. 11B to just beyond the Weirs Community Center.
The public hearing, which lasted two hours, opened with an explanation of the proposed changes with Warren Hutchins, planning board chairman, saying that they were made in response to the changing character of the Weirs area which had gone from motel and cottage rentals to condominiums in recent decades.
But Les Schuster, owner of the Lazy E Motel as well as the Bear Tree Lodge and Lakeside Getaway and the Gunstock Inn in Gilford, said that the proposal was ''a blatant assault on tourism'' and would change the character of the area in which he had chosen to invest his money.
He said that the conversion to condominiums of former cottage colonies had already reduced tourism in The Weirs and that the area needed more commercial attractions, not fewer. He maintained that the closing of the Christmas Island resort and the development now taking place had closed off the last boat launch on the lake and said that the city was also killing Bike Week as an attraction.
Don Richards of the Weirs Park Association maintained that the changes were needed and that the second home condo owners in the Weirs area contribute greatly to the economy and pay property taxes but have no voice in what happens on the boulevard.
''They don't want to show up and see a Ferris wheel next door,'' said Richards, which drew a rejoinder from a former Wolfeboro resident who now owns a home on the boulevard that people who didn't want to see new attractions near their summer or weekend residences should move to Wolfeboro.
Elizabeth Hutchins said that she thought the proposal ''is a great thing'' and said that it was developed in response to what has evolved in The Weirs and said that development of new attractions along the boulevard is very unlikely.
Attorney Patrick Wood questioned the impact of several of the proposed change, maintaining that that a combined dwelling and business would be a prohibited use, and that a ban on accessory apartments and indoor storage were also problematic.
Raymond Lavallee, who has owned the Rich Haven Cottages for 42 years, maintained that the changes would prohibit him from storing his own boat on his property and said that he opposed the proposed changes, as he felt they would take away his property rights.
He said that he owns 9 acres of land and 400 feet of water frontage and thinks that the change lowers the value of his property, which he said he has been saving until late in life to sell.
''Who came up with this idea?'' he demanded, as City Planner Shanna Saunders sought to explain how the zoning change would affect his property and that he still had the right to store his own boat on his property.
Attorney Paul Fitzgerald, representing the Naswa Resort, said that the proposed change could close off options for future expansion of the resort and could introduce conflicts with neighbors as it would have its southern boundary next to the Shorefront Residential area.
Joe Driscoll, owner of the Cozy Inn and Cottages at Weirs Beach, said that there were some good and bad elements in he proposal and that he was unhappy with the proposed change at the southern end of the district which could potentially open the door to a major auto maintenance facility being located on shorefront property.
John Ganong, who lives on the boulevard at a former restaurant and real estate sales site and whose request to sell autos as the site was rejected by the ZBA even though it had approved auto sales at another location in the same zone, prompted the City Council's request to the Planning Board for a review of land uses in the CR district, said he opposed the changes.
He also said he felt strongly that all of the people affected by the proposed changes should have received some kind of official notification that the changes were being considered.
''Most people don't know about it,'' he said.
Michael Foote of Roller Coaster Road said it appeared that real estate developers who have done condo projects seemed to be driving the process so they could protect their high end investments and pointed out that another 290 houses are planned for the Langley Cove area. He questioned how commercial development could take place along the boulevard. ''What condo group are you going to tear down in order to have a development?"
Cynthia Makris of the Naswa said her mother's family, the Saltas, had been in Laconia for 115 years and have run the lakeside resort, which provides employment for 140 people six months a year, for over 80 years.
''Why would the city do something so guaranteed to hurt our business?'' she asked, maintaining that the ramifications of the rezoning hadn't been thought through. "I take great offense to having the line drawn right next to us for a residential area.''
Charlie St. Clair, who heads Bike Week and is a partner in Laconia Antiques in the downtown area, said that he thinks there is an attempt to create a Shore Drive area along the boulevard which isn't good for the city.
''It makes no sense. Just leave it like it is,'' said St. Clair.
John Moriarty, who heads up the Laconia Downtown Initiative and was part of the task force which came up with the proposal, said ''I've been listening to the wrong people,'' and said there was no intent to hurt the city's economy. "I hate to see us being seen as unfriendly to business.''
After the public hearing ended Ward 5 Councilman Bob Hamel said that the council launched the survey of uses without any intent of ''beating down business owners'' and said he would oppose adopting the proposal.
Council members said they wanted to take action while those who had attended the hearing were still present and voted to suspend the rules in order to take action. Ward 3 Councilor Henry Lipman asked to have the proposal withdrawn and reboot the process, but Ward 2 Councilor David Bownes, who had opposed the council's action last year in requesting the Planning Board study the issue, said it would just put the council back in the same place and ''get us back in the same mess.''
Ward 6 Councilman Armand Bolduc said the proposal ''should be voted down tonight,'' and after agreeing to take up the issue again at its next meeting the council voted unanimously against adopting the proposed changes.
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