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.
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