By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The City Council this week tabled the offer of Erica Blizzard, the owner of Lakeport Landing Marina, to purchase the Lakeport Fire Station after a public hearing at which only one person spoke in favor selling the property while nearly a dozen urged the city to retain ownership of the property and preserve the building.
The first steps in offering the property for sale are for the council to hold a public hearing and afterwards decide whether or not to declare the property "surplus," a decision the council deferred by tabling the matter. The issue is overshadowed by a tentative settlement of a lawsuit brought by Blizzard against the city, which apparently hinges on granting her an opportunity to purchase the fire station.
For 30 years, Lakeport Landing operated a showroom on a parcel on Union Avenue leased from the city until the lease expired and ownership reverted to the city last November. Blizzard offered to purchase the property her firm had leased, but the City Council decided it was bound to accept competitive bids. Irwin Marine , which operates on the abutting lot, submitted the highest offer, which the city accepted. Blizzard brought suit, claiming the bidding process was flawed. The court granted Irwin Marine's petition to intervene in the litigation then ordered all three parties to to seek to settle the dispute through mediation, which they did last month.
Soon afterward, Blizzard offered $127,700 for three lots, which together amount to less than an acre, where she would construct a showroom. The lot housing the Lakeport Fire Station is 0.32 acres and the lot abutting it to the rear of the building is 0.195 acres. The two lots include some 132 feet of municipal right-of-way — Railroad Avenue. Blizzard's offer includes granting an easement to the city confirming its right to Railroad Avenue and, to the extent possible, an undertaking to make parking spaces on the north side of the street available to the general public for parking. The third lot, a 0.81-acre strip between Union Avenue and the railroad is what remains of the larger parcel the city leased to Lakeport Landing, most of which was assigned to Irwin Marine.
Steve Whalley of HKPowersports described Union Avenue as "the backbone of the commercial part of the city" and urged the council the sell the property. He anticipated the fire station would be replaced with a new building that would be added to the tax rolls. Whalley asked the council to "Do nothing to block commercial development in our town."
However, Whalley was outnumbered by those opposing the sale of the property. Joe Higgins, a retired fire captain from Boston, strongly recommended retaining the station as "a strategic point of control for a future emergency." The Fire Department has surrendered its interest in the station, which has not operated since 1981, but has served as a dormitory for student firefighters and housed fire vehicles from time to time until relatively recently. The building currently serves as a garage for vehicle of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). The expansion and renovation of Central Fire Station was designed to render the Lakeport Fire Station redundant and includes space for the CERT vehicle, which has been garaged at the station.
Catherine Tokarz of the Heritage Commission reminded the council that the station, built in 1955, qualifies as a historic structure. Without addressing the sale of the property, she urged the council not to allow the building to be destroyed, but instead to require it be preserved and maintained. She was echoed by several speakers, including Bob Fortier of the Lakeport Association, who said flatly "I don't want to see the building torn down."
Fortier was also among several speakers to tell the council that the parking on the property is essential to the businesses at Lakeport Square. Chip Avery, who has operated a restaurant on Railroad Avenue for 32 years, said "It is the only parking in Lakeport" and said the sale of the lots is "not acceptable." Mike Conolly said that one business after another in Lakeport have failed for want of adequate parking, adding that if the spaces are lost, they cannot be replaced.
After the hearing, Councilor Hamel (Ward 2) made the motion to table, which carried unanimously with Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) absent. However, following the vote Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) proposed that before proceeding further the council should commission an appraisal of the property.
Mayor Ed Engler noted that Blizzard's offer matched the city's assessment of the value of the land, excluding the building, and said because she must vacate the property she has leased by next November, the council should make a timely decision. He advised the councilors that if they choose not to sell the property, they could spare the expense of appraising it simply by declining to declare it surplus. However, the council voted to order the appraisal and revisit the issue when it is complete.
Meanwhile, Myers said that since Blizzard submitted her offer for the property a handful of others have expressed interest in purchasing it.
The land under consideration. (Google Maps)