By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Against the will of Planning Board Chairman Warren Hutchins, the board, by the narrowest of majorities, acceded to the request of the City Council by voting Tuesday to expedite consideration of its proposal to redraw the zoning map and change the permitted uses of the commercial resort district encompassing The Weirs.
The board resolved "to refer the Council request to amend the Commercial Resort Zone to the Zoning Task Force and begin the review process." The five-to-four vote followed a lengthy, sometimes heated, back and forth between Hutchins and Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), the council's liaison to the Planning Board. Bownes was joined in the majority by Charlie St. Clair, Jay Tivnan, Michael DellaVecchia and Bill Contardo while Edwin Bones, Gail Denio and Hamilton McLean voted with Hutchins.
The Commercial Resort District begins on Lake Street, just south of its junction with White Oaks Road, extends northward along Weirs Boulevard, includes the center of the Weirs and runs either side of Endicott Street North (US Route 3) to the Meredith town line. It also includes property along both sides of Endicott Street East (NH Route 11-B) east of the roundabout to just beyond the Weirs Community Center. Both specified commercial and residential uses are permitted throughout the district.
The proposal by the council would divide the district into two parts by carving a Commercial Resort Corridor District, designated CR2, out from the existing Commercial Resort District, which would become CR1. The corridor would be defined as the area extending 400 feet from either side of the center line of Endicott Street North (US Route 3) and Endicott Street East (NH Route 11-B) between the Meredith town line to the west and the center of the intersection with White Oaks Road to the east. Within the corridor residential development would be restricted to the upper level of buildings and then only if the ground floor of the same building were put to commercial use. In both the Commercial Resort Corridor and Commercial Resort districts the requirement to set aside a portion of lots as green space would be eliminated when the property is put to commercial use.
Last month, when the council endorsed the proposal, it agreed to ask the Planning Board to deal with it in a timely manner by addressing its major elements in October or November. Specifically, the council asked the board to schedule a public hearing as soon as possible in order to forestall property owners from submitting applications for projects under the existing zoning ordinance.
Hutchins told the board that after discussing the council's request with Contardo, the vice chairman of the board, he decided "our normal procedure applies." He said that the proposal has been distributed to members of the board for them to study prior to the next meeting in October. He said that Mayor Ed Engler, the architect of the proposal, will be invited to present the proposal at that meeting and respond to questions from both the board members and general public. Following what Hutchins said would be "similar to a conceptual plan review," the board would vote on the next step.
Bownes replied that he had a charge from the council and "your procedure for doing business does not quite conform to the specific charge that I have from the council." He said that the council is asking the board to treat the proposal as "expeditiously as possible." He noted that if a public hearing were deferred beyond November or December, it may not be scheduled until March, April or May when property owners at The Weirs are able to participate in the process. Some 100 properties would be affected by the proposal. Bownes stressed that the council was not "curtailing or shortchanging the process of review."
"We have a responsibility to ensure a thorough understanding of the proposal," said Hutchins, who insisted the board should follow what he called "our normal process." Describing the proposal as "very complex," he said that it should be referred the appropriate city departments, Zoning Board of Adjustment and Conservation Commission as well as the Town of Meredith and Lakes Region Planning Commission, because "this has a regional impact." He said "there is no sense of urgency from any standpoint," suggesting that undue haste could expose the city to litigation. Referring to state law, Hutchins said that while the City Council has "tremendous responsibilities, but one of them is not zoning. It is our responsibility." He said that it was especially important to follow procedure in the event there is litigation in order to not to be "subject to a change of procedure or political interference."
Bownes insisted that he was not asking to bypass any step in the process. "I'm just asking to get the ball rolling" by referring the proposal to the Zoning Task Force, which could report to the Planning Board in November or December.
Hutchins said that the Planning Board "did not know enough" to refer the proposal to the Zoning Task Force and begin the process right away. "There is absolutely no sense of urgency," Hutchins repeated. "The fear factor is just a smokescreen." He said that expediting the process would be "totally irresponsible" and asserted "this is our responsibility, not the council's."
With that Bownes offered the motion to refer the proposal to the Zoning Task Force and direct it to begin the review the review process.
After the motion carried, Interim Planning Director noted that the motion did not direct the board to schedule a public hearing, but will take public comment at its October meeting. Both Hutchins and Bownes stressed the importance of soliciting and receiving opinion from the general public.
However, when Hutchins suggested that zoning changes should follow, not precede, the adoption of the Master Plan, which he anticipated would be completed in six or seven months, Bownes said he is opposed to the proposal. Denying the charge, Hutchins replied, "I have a lot of questions. I consider this proposal very dangerous and I want to find out more. And I wanted each of you to find out more before you voted. That's our responsibility."