LACONIA — The division among city councilors that arose earlier this week over the reappointment of Warren Hutchins, the chairman of the Planning Board, reflected concerns expressed by some developers and contractors about how the board conducts its business.
Hutchins, who also chairs the Lakes Region Planning Commission, was reappointed to a three year term by a three-to-two vote, with Councilors Ava Doyle (Ward 1), Henry Lipman (Ward 3) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) voting in favor and Councilors Brenda Baer (Ward 4) and Bob Hamel (Ward 5) voting against. Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), who serves as the liaison to the Planning Board, was absent, but would also have voted to reappoint Hutchins.
At the same time and by the same margin, the council declined to appoint Charlie St. Claiir, a critic of Hutchins, to the board. Only Baer and Hamel voted to seat St. Clair. Instead, the council voted unanimously to appoint Edwin Bones, a building contractor and real estate broker relatively new to the city.
Before the councilors voted several people spoke both for and against the reappointment of Hutchins. Kevin Morrissette, who has developed residential properties in the city for 30 years, described the attitude of the Planning Board as "not as friendly as it might be". He explained that while the rules and regulations are clear, the members pursue "their own little agendas", which he makes "the board very difficult to deal with". Alluding to Hutchins, he told the councilors that "three more years of the same is not what we should be looking for."
Kevin Morrissette was echoed by his brother Peter, the owner of Joyce Janitorial Services and Lakes Region Party & Gifts who has developed residential and commercial property in partnership with his brother. He told the council that he had spoken with five others who shared his misgivings about the Planning Board, three of whom declined to speak openly for fear of retribution.
Peter Morrissette said that when he went before the Zoning Board of Adjustment to seek a variance permitting him to use the former St. Helena Mission Church as a storage facility he endured "personal attacks" from Hutchins, who, he said, claimed to speak for neighboring homeowners, but reminded the ZBA that he chairs the Planning Board.
Likewise he recalled that when and his brother developed a residential, multi-family property on Washington Street their original plan satisfied every city regulation, but the Planning Board insisted on architectural changes that were not specified in the zoning ordinance. As a result, he was required to present eight sets of fresh plans — 12 pages each — and his engineering costs, estimated at $3,000 swelled to $7,200.
In addition, he said that the board insisted he keep three oak trees on the property, including one overhanging a building that damaged a car when it shed its acorns. "Did I get a check for the $1,700 I paid to repair the car and for the $600 I paid to prune the tree?" he asked.
"It's not very user friendly and very frustrating," Peter Morrissette said. "I will not go to the planning Board as long as Mr. Hutchins is on the board," he continued. "I'm sick of it." As for the church property, he declared "I'll develop it three years from now when Mr. Hutchins is gone."
Clay Dunn, a contractor, said "I haven't heard anything positive from the Planning Board in two or three years" and added "it's a struggle and time for a new direction."
However, Hamilton McLean, a member of the Planning Board, rose in defense of Hutchins. As a veteran of land use boards in New York and New Jersey, he said "I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly on both sides of the fence" and stressed to the councilors "you have some very fine people who hold Laconia's best interests at their core." As a board member, he said he had witnessed the alleged "obstructive behavior" and urged the council to "consider the record of the Planning Board."
When the council voted, Lipman addressed the criticism leveled against the Planning Board. He said that he has heard similar concerns and acknowledged that "the tone and tenor is not always supportive of getting things done."
I'm going to be watching very carefully how we are perceived going forward," Lipman continued. "When economic development is thwarted, we pay a price." He said that while situation needs to be corrected, "blowing it up (by not reappointing Hutchins) is not the right course."
Although Hutchins was not in the council chamber, Lipman addressed him, saying, "you need to take stock of what's been said here tonight."