Neighbors unhappy about storage facility plans

LACONIA — After meeting with stiff opposition from nearby homeowners, the request of Peter Morrissette, the owner of what was St. Helena Mission Church at Weirs Beach, for a zoning variance to use the building as a storage facility was deferred by the Zoning Board of Adjustment until its members consult with the city attorney.

Doing business as PEM Real Estate, LLC, Morrissette acquired the 3.38-acre property in the shorefront residential district, where commercial uses are tightly restricted, last December for $185,000. At the time, Morrissette said he had no immediate plans for the property, but indicated he would explore its residential development. The zoning ordinance would permit construction of six single-family homes or 20 condominium units on the lot.

Meanwhile, seeking to reap income from the property, Morrissette asked the City Council to change the zoning ordinance to allow boat and watercraft storage in the shorefront residential district, but was flatly rebuffed. Then he turned to the ZBA.

Attorney Paul Fitzgerald, representing Morrissette, told the ZBA on Monday that the ground floor and basement of the building each provide 5,200-square-feet of undivided space. He assured the board that the exterior of the building would be maintained without change. Nor would there be an office, signage or outdoor storage on the site. At the same time, the site would continue to serve as a stopping place and turnaround for school buses as well as impound lot for Police Department during Motorcycle Week, if necessary.

Instead, Fitzgerald explained, the space would be leased to one or two commercial entities for a relatively long-term to store seasonal inventory, like motorcycles, jet-skis and snowmobiles. He said that there would be very infrequent comings and goings to and from the site. In particular, Fitzgerald stressed that the building would not be divided into a multiplicity of individual storage units for household belongings with round-the clock access.

As proposed, the storage facility, Fitzgerald said, would generate less traffic than the church did and have significantly less impact on the neighborhood than either a convenience store or hotel, both of which would be permitted on the lot. "It would be a quiet and lightly used acivity," he remarked, "with no light, no noise, no signs, no traffic."

However, Planning Director Shanna Saunders reminded the board that the zoning ordinance defines "indoor storage" as "a building consisting of individual small self-contained units that are leased or owned for the storage of business or household goods." She said that since a variance would run with the property, she was reluctant to have the board grant it, fearing that a subsequent owner could invoke it to open a conventional storage facility on the lot.

Fitzgerald suggested that the ZBA attach conditions on its decision to grant a variance, which he volunteered to record on the deed in the Registry of Deeds.

Warren Hutchins of Boathouse Road, speaking for himself and 10 families, insisted that the proposal failed the legal tests required of a variance. Endicott Street East (Route 11-B), he described as a "gateway to the city," the appearance of which is a high priority of both the Master Plan and City Council.

Already, he claimed that a camper and Jeep, both marked "for sale," have appeared on the lot and the grass on the property has been mown only once. "That's not acceptable," he declared.

Hutchins noted that the property sits on the corner of the only road to the Pendleton Beach neighborhood, where 23 homeowners represent what he called "the most highly assessed zone in the city." He said that 15 of the 20 most valuable residences in the city are within a mile of former church property. A storage facility, Hutchins forecast, would diminish the value of surrounding properties.

Hutchins was echoed by Harvey Moses, president of the Pendleton Beach Association, all 23 members of which voted against the requested variance. "They're afraid of it," he told the bold, "very, very concerned that the applicant may overstep."

John Remington, whose 30 acres surround the former church lot also challenged its use as a storage facility while his attorney, Bill Philpot told the board that Morrissette was seeking a variance to generate income to carry the property until it could be developed. Lack of income from the property, he suggested, did not represent a hardship sufficient to warrant granting the variance.

When the public hearing concluded, Steve Bogert, who chairs the ZBA, immediately proposed that the board enter a "conversation" with the city attorney. Bob Smith agreed, remarking that there is some confusion arising from the difference between the definition of "indoor storage" and what the applicant is proposing.

Without dissent, the board voted to meet with legal counsel before its meeting in August, when it would return to the request.

School Board looking a year ahead for impact of City Council's $100k cut to budget

LACONIA — Members of the Laconia School Board expressed concern over the impact of the $100,000 cut in the school district's budget approved by the City Council Monday night when they met at the Harvard Street School on Tuesday night.
''Next year's budget will be challenging,'' said board member Scott Vachon, who said that the allowable increase will be very small given the cut and the low rate of increase in the consumer price index, to which the city's property tax cap is pegged.
''It's negative growth right now and might not even be a half of a percent before the year is over.'' said Vachon, pointing out that the allowable increase might not even fully cover increases in health insurance and teacher pay to which the district is obligated.
School Board Chairman Joe Cormier, reacting to statements by Interim Superintendent Phil McCormack praising the school district's summer learning programs, said that the board will have to do a better job getting out word about its accomplishments in order to build the kind of community support which will prevent future cuts by the council.
Board member Mike Persson, who attended Monday night's council meeting where he pointed out that the savings on the average property tax bill would amount to only $14, said that in light of the cut the district should take a close look at its fund-raising policies as there may be a need for fund-raising in the near future.
Vachon said that Budget and Personnel Committee has been looking at the areas which will be cut in response to the council's action and is working with Business Administrator Ed Emond to come up with a list of areas to be cut which will be presented to the board at it's next meeting on August 11.
Emond said that building improvement work was proceeding well at the high school, where eight classrooms are being renovated and that some of the new fields at the high school where grass growth had been minimal were now irrigated and doing much better.
He said that bids of $160,000 and $200,000 had been received for a new heating system at the SAU office at Harvard Street and that the low bid had been accepted and the district was taking advantage of allowable energy credits. An October 15 completion date is anticipated for the project.
A number of summer learning experiences have been provided, including a Project Extra program involving 192 elementary school students, 48 Middle School students and seven at Laconia High School. Teachers are also taking part in a math-science summer institute which involved 40 teachers, a mental health first aid training for 10 teachers and a K-5 Report Card Committee involving 12 teachers has been meeting.
McCormack said he had had a productive two-day administrative meeting with staff members and was very impressed with the skills and mindset of the staffers, as well as their candor.
He said that he was developing an action plan for the school district's improvement efforts.
The board approved 21 nominations he made to fill teaching positions in the district, five at Woodland Heights, two at Pleasant Street, three at Elm Street, four at the Middle School, six at the High School and one at the Huot Center.
He said that three positions remain unfilled and that he expects more vacancies will soon take place as he has received several calls for references from other school districts.
The board also approved a five-year, $271,503.79 contract with MST Government Leasing LLC which will see 90 percent of the 104 printers used by the school district replaced.

CAPTION: cut slugged McCormack

Laconia's Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Phil McCormack says he is impressed with the summer learning programs underway in the city. (Roger Amsden photo/for The Laconia Daily Sun)

Sale of Colonial Theater to BEDC closed on Friday

LACONIA — "This is the first step of many," said Randy Eifert, who chairs the Belknap Economic Development Council, after announcing yesterday that 609 Main Street, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the organization completed its acquisition of the property housing the historic Colonial Theatre.

The 3-building property was purchased for $1.4 million from Patricia Baldi, whose late husband Lawrence acquired it in 1967. The City of Laconia loaned the BEDC the purchase price for a term of up to 18 months, with interim payments of interest only.

Eifert expressed the BEDC's appreciation for the support and assistance it received in undertaking this project from the business community, civic leaders and other partners. In particular, he thanked those who volunteered their time and expertise to conclude the transaction, including attorney John Giere of Wescott Law and Kevin Sullivan and Steve Weeks, Jr. of Weeks Commercial Real Estate.

The BEDC has contracted with Bayside Rentals and Management of Meredith to provide property management services for the property.

"This just the beginning, Eifert remarked. During the next 18 months the BEDC will assemble a financial package of approximately $15 million to fund the renovation of the property. When the financing is arranged, the BEDC will repay its $1.4 million loan from the city, which in turn will lend BEDC between $2 million and $3 million with payments of interest only for a term of seven years to complete the financing for the renovation and restoration of the property.

Once the theater is renovated and restored, the city will lease it as the sole tenant for seven years, operating the property as a civic auditorium. After seven years the city will have the option to acquire the auditorium, but not the residential and commercial units on the property, by forgiving its outstanding loan to the BEDC.

Altogether the property complex consists of 38,642-square-feet, of which the theater itself represents approximately 20,000-square-feet. It sits on a half-acre with 91 feet of frontage on Main Street and 209 feet of frontage on Canal Street. In addition to the theater, the property includes four storefront retail units on Main Street, each of about 1,150 square feet, five retail units on Canal Street, ranging between 250 and 1,500 square feet, and 18 apartments on the second and third floors on the Main Street building.