By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — After butting heads with the City Council over the preparation of the Master Plan for the past several months, the Planning Board has committed to working with the councilors to complete the plan. Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), who serves as the council's liaison to the board, told the council of the board's commitment this week.
At the same time, the council, which in November withheld further funding for preparation of the Master Plan, agreed to contract with the Lakes Region Planning Commission to complete the vision statement and land use chapter of the plan, the only two elements required by state statute.
The rift between the council and the board opened late last summer when the council referred a proposal to rezone the commercial resort district encompassing The Weirs, which the board summarily rejected. Warren Hutchins, who then chaired the board, insisted that any changes to zoning asserted its authority over zoning and insisted that no changes to zoning should be undertaken until the Master Plan was complete sometime in 2017.
In November, a divided council countered by withholding further funding for preparation of the Master Plan. In particular, the council shelved a contract with the Lakes Region Planning Commission to write the land use chapter of the plan. The council resolution expressed doubt that the Master Plan would tackle "the significant demographic and economic issues" facing the city, particularly the shrinkage of the middle class population and the diminished commercial tax base. Moreover, it pointed to the unwillingness of the Planning Board to engage in "a reasonable public discourse" about the proposal, to make changes to the zoning at The Weirs.
When the council met this week interim planning director Brandee Loughlin reviewed the progress of the Master Plan. Although work began in spring of 2014, only the vision statement and three chapters have been drafted while work on four chapters has not yet begun.
Mayor Ed Engler pointed out that only the vision statement and land use chapter are required and the remains in rough draft while work on the second stalled in April 2015. "I'm not leveling criticism at anyone who is the room tonight," the mayor said," but the only chapter required by law has not even been started." He said that work should proceed on the land use chapter "and nothing else," noting that $20,000 has been budgeted for the contract with the Lakes Region Planning Commission to write the chapter.
Engler stressed that the land use chapter "must have a purpose," namely to address the imbalance between the commercial and residential sectors of the city's tax base and to encourage the development of competitively priced housing. Likewise, Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) said that the chapter should include "creative ideas" for meeting the demographic and economic challenges facing the city.
Jeff Hayes, executive director of the Lakes Region Planning Commission, assured the council that the agency would work with the City Council and Planning Board to ensure that the chapter addressed the priorities set by the city.
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