LACONIA — While persisting with its effort to offer guidance to the Planning Board about studying changing the zoning at the Weirs, the City Council this week agreed to solicit the views of stakeholders — property, business and home owners — before framing any formal recommendations.
In taking the initiative to advise the Planning Board, the council has departed from past practice by which changes to the zoning ordinance have generally originated with the Planning Board. City Council always has the final word.
In 2006, a "Smart Growth" team, sponsored and funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency that visited the city, recommended rezoning the Weirs, most of which lies within the commercial resort (CR) district which extends northward from White Oaks Road to the Meredith town line However, no changes were proposed until this spring, after the Zoning Board of Adjustment granted one property owner and denied another a special exception to sell automobiles in the CR district. The decision prompted the City Council to ask the Planning Board to review the uses in the CR district.
The board responded by proposing to rezone Weirs Boulevard from the Naswa Resort to Lake Street from CR to Shorefront Residential (SFR) and Lake Street from CR) to Commercial and to change 10 permitted uses within the CR district. When business interests objected to restricted commerce along the boulevard, the council scuttled the proposal.
In returning to the subject this week, Mayor Ed Engler said "it is not our purpose to revisit the earlier proposal nor is our conversation limited to Weirs Boulevard. He encouraged councilors to consider the boundaries and uses of the entire CR zone. And he reminded the council that only it could make changes to the zoning ordinance.
Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) said that zoning should encourage the highest and best use of private property that increases real estate values and spurs economic activity. As the hub of a popular tourist area, he suggested the Weirs should be zoned to fill a "competitive niche".
Engler was more specific, suggesting that the CR district might be broken up into two or more different districts. In particular, he said that the frontage along Route 3 between the Weirs Channel and Meredith town line could be designated for commercial uses, leaving the remainder of the land for residential or mixed use development. Engler expressed concern that the current zoning allows both commercial and residential development throughout the Weirs and asked whether some land should be reserved solely for commercial uses.
Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), who serves as the council's liaison to the Planning Board, said that zoning issues will be addressed by the Master Plan, which is in the course of being prepared.
Planning Director Shanna Saunders assured the council that the land use and economic development sections of the Master Plan will be completed in the spring of 2016.
Lipman, who has voiced impatience with the process of drafting the Master Plan, said that the issue of zoning at The Weirs could be pursued along "parallel paths".
Councilor Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) repeatedly proposed that the council invite members of the public to express their views. "Let the people come to us and tell us what they want," he said.
Engler said that the council could either refer recommendations to the Planning Board or hold a public hearing, sound the opinion of stakeholders and then approach the Planning Board. Without dissent the council chose to schedule a public hearing, to which interested parties would be invited and all interested parties would be allowed to speak.
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