By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The Planning Board this week voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing on a proposal by the City Council at its next regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 1, but only after Warren Hutchins, the chairman of the Planning Board, urged the council to rescind its proposal, and several speakers, Hutchin's wife, Mary, chief among them, roundly criticized it.
The council has proposed dividing the Commercial Resort District, which encompasses The Weirs, by delineating a corridor along either side of US Route 3 from the Meredith town line to White Oaks Road, within which residential development would be confined to the upper stories of buildings with commercial space on the ground floor. Mayor Ed Engler, the principal architect of the proposal, said that the aim of the proposal is to encourage commercial development on the remaining undeveloped and underdeveloped land in the city, virtually all of which lies in the Commercial Resort District, by restricting residential development in general and prohibiting manufactured housing in particular in the corridor.
Engler, supported by five of the six councilors, had pressed the board to schedule the hearing in order, as the mayor put it, "to stop the clock," or forestall property owners from applying to develop land under the provisions of the current zoning ordinance. Although Hutchins initially sought to defer a public hearing until the proposal was thoroughly reviewed by the board, city departments, other boards and commissions and the Lakes Region Planning Commission, the Planning Board is bound by the city code. The code stipulates that upon receipt of a proposal from the council, the Planning Board shall schedule a public hearing within 30 days and, moreover, forward a recommendation to the council within 90 days.
The mayor repeatedly reminded the board that the council is not seeking the board's "immediate approval" of the proposal, acknowledging that "many of its specifics are arbitrary and all are subject to discussion and change." He told the board "We're willing to work with you in any way possible" and "We can take our time."
Engler was echoed by City Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) who said that "As long as we have cooperation, we can take as long as we want." He explained that since the Planning Board is required to make a recommendation to the council within 90 days, if the there were an understanding that the council would not approve but remand it for further consideration, then the board could hold more public hearings.
However, there was scant sign of a willingness to cooperate when Hutchins opened the floor to the public. City Councilor Ava Doyle (Ward 1), who as a councilor voted in favor of referring the proposal to the Planning Board, called it "merely a starting point" and suggested deferring rezoning until the Master Plan is complete and in the meantime letting the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, Conservation Commission and others "do their job." In particular, Doyle expressed concern about increasing storm water runoff as well as stifling the growth of small businesses, especially bed and breakfast establishments, by prohibiting ground floor residential units. She also questioned the impact on a resort destination of prohibiting campgrounds in the corridor.
"It looks like a money thing," said Joe Driscoll III, owner of the Cozy Inn and Lakeview House and Cottages. "More revenue to the city." While skeptical of the proposal, he remarked, "I will look forward to the conversation."
Chris Duprey of Southworth Development LLC, the developer of Meredith Bay and one of the largest property owners affected by the proposal, said that the goal is "worthwhile," cautioned that restricting the permitted uses along US Route 3 could further limit the demand and lower the value of the property along the corridor. He counted ten significant properties for sale between the roundabout at The Weirs and the Meredith town line, commenting that demand for them is weak and could be weakened further by changing the zoning.
"The mayor forgets where he is," began Mary Hutchins who claimed that the mayor and city council had contributed to the decline of The Weirs, apparently by enabling the owners of cottage colonies to convert to condominium ownership, which has shrunk the number of summer visitors. Then she charged that "You're adding another death threat to that."
Referring to the expertise of boards and commissions, along with the report of a team sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hutchins told the mayor "You've ignored all their ideas. I'm very offended by your presentation.
"Your plan is hurting the city. There is no reason to jump into this," she closed, apologizing for her "passion."
Her husband said that "No one should be sorry for expressing passion about Laconia."
During her remarks, Mary Hutchins claimed that in the past the mayor and city council had discouraged Rusty McLear of Hampshire Hospitality Holdings from investing at The Weirs and he turned to Meredith. She said that while Meredith has thrived, The Weirs "is going from a rich area to slum."
McLear called allegations that city officials discouraged him from investing in The Weirs "absolutely not true." he recalled that in 1986 he and two partners purchased the operations of the M/S Mt. Washington and invested $4 million in building the train station and ticket office on the boardwalk. He said the project was undertaken in partnership with the city, which agreed to rebuild and landscape the boardwalk.
"The city did everything they said they would do," McLear said, adding that while he has since sold business, "I'm very proud of our long relationship with the city."
McLear acknowledged that he explored other projects at The Weirs but chose not to pursue them because of factors having nothing to do with the city.
Warren Hutchins, who had said little, conceded that the Planning Board is required to hold a public hearing, which would curtail all development inconsistent with the council's proposal. But, he went on to suggest the Lakes Region Planning Commission undertake a study of the potential for commercial development and defer any rezoning until the Master Plan is completed next spring. Finally he asked the council to rescind its proposal while saying "I'm not making a motion or calling for a vote."
Interim Planning Director Brandee Loughlin said Wednesday that once the legal notice announcing the public hearing on Nov. 1 is properly posted the clock will stop and the Planning Department will accept but not act on applications that fail to conform to the provisions of the council's proposal.