LACONIA — By encouraging the Planning Board to reconsider the zoning at The Weirs, the City Council has revived a suggestion first offered by a team of consultants sponsored and funded by the United States Environmental Protection, which issued its report in 2007.
"Currently," the report noted, "Weirs Beach is at risk of having its character change very quickly in ways that are at odds with the community vision." In particular, the team found that "Weirs Beach is not capitalizing on its full range of destination opportunities" and that "one major challenge will be developing new types of businesses and lodgings to attract a new group of visitors, while maintaining the energy and economic success of existing events."
The team recommended addressing the zoning at The Weirs. "Weirs Beach is not well suited for a single regulatory strategy," they concluded. "Instead, the area needs a variety of zoning designations," the report continued, that "need to be of a finer grain and distinguish between commercial and residential properties."
Apart from residential zones along Scenic Road to the west and Pendleton Beach Road and Wentworth Cove Road to the east, the remainder of The Weirs lies entirely within the Commercial Resort (CR) District. The CR 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 Route 3 to the Meredith town line. It also includes property along both sides of Route 11B, including the former Surf Coaster property.
The zoning ordinance describes the district as intended to accommodate dining, lodging and recreation entities for both occasional tourists and seasonal residents as well as apartments and condominiums. All residential and recreational uses are permitted throughout the district, along with most commercial uses, other than those of an industrial character.
With its proximity to Lake Winnipesaukee and relative abundance of undeveloped and underdeveloped land served by municipal utilities, The Weirs represents a significant opportunity for the city to increase its commercial tax base. In Laconia, residential property represents 82.6 percent of the total assessed valuation, the largest share among the 13 cities in the state. Conversely, the value of commercial property and buildings, including utilities, accounts for 17.4 percent, the smallest share of any city.
Land suited for commercial development is limited. Laconia, with 20.1 square miles of land, is one of the smallest cities in the state. Only Somersworth with 9.8 square miles, and Portsmouth, with 15.7 square miles, are smaller. Moreover, there are six state forests — Hamel, Huston-Morgan, Opechee Bay, Paugus, Prescott, Swain — covering 749 acres in the northern reaches of the city as well as Ahern State Park of 128.8 acres and the former Laconia State School of 202 acres on North Main Street. Altogether these properties account for nearly ten percent of the land area of the city. Moreover, much of the remaining land in the northern part of the city on either side of Meredith Center Road and Parade Road is environmentally sensitive and without municipal utilities.
Meanwhile, there are a number of properties at The Weirs, ripe for development or redvelopment. Of these the largest is the 13.6 acres at the corner of White Oaks Road and Endicott Street East (Route 11B) that formerly housed Surf Coaster USA, which has been on the market since 2007. The Weirs Beach Drive-In Theater, 12.6 acres, was listed for sale earlier this year. Robert Csendes, who acquired the 2.46 acre lot where the waterslide operated at the corner of Endicott Street North and Lakeside Avenue, is seeking to redevelop the property and Al Mitchell recently acquired two vacant lots, the 0.6 acre parcel next to the drive-in theater and a 6.8 acre tract next to Cumberland Farms on Endicott Street North.
Under the current zoning in the CR district these and other properties at The Weirs could become either residential subdivisions or commercial developments. In fact, the current discussion arose after the City Council rejected the Planning Board's proposal to restrict commercial development along Weirs Boulevard by rezoning it from commercial resort to shorefront residential. A number of business owners from The Weirs objected to the change, which they feared would unnecessarily limit commercial opportunities in a resort area.
When the question of zoning at The Weirs last arose at the City Council Mayor Ed Engler noted that the Planning Board may want to consider reserving some land in the CR district solely for commercial or mixed use development. In particular, he suggested that the frontage along Endicott Street North could be restricted to commercial uses or alternatively to commercial uses on the ground floor and residential uses.
The City Council will invite property owners and other stakeholders to join the discussion of zoning at The Weirs at a future council meeting.