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Site plan dispute between Gilmanton Winery & the town's planning board is now is court

LACONIA — The battle between Marshall and Carol Bishop, the owners of the Gilmanton Winery, and the Gilmanton Planning Board escalated into a full-blown legal war on Nov. 18 when the board issued a cease-and-desist order against the business.

After receiving the order on Nov. 22, the Bishops' attorney filed for an emergency temporary restraining order against the Planning Board on Nov. 23 in Belknap County Superior Court, saying that forcing the winery to close for the Thanksgiving holiday would cost his client money as he had already booked seatings for the day.

The two parties declared a court-sanctioned cease fire when the Bishops agreed to withdraw their motion for an emergency restraining order and the Planning Board agreed not to pursue any cease-and-desist order until the court decides on the merits of a preliminary injunction or request to stop an action, which the judge has ordered the Bishops to file before Dec. 9. Once filed, it is expected the town will reply, unless an agreement is reached beforehand.

According to the request for the restraining order, the Bishops have been running the Gilmanton Winery, in the former home of late author Grace Metalious, since 2011. They provided the court with Planning Board minutes from June 9, 2011, in which they say the Planning Board granted them final approval of a site plan.

Quotations from the minutes include "all permitting both state and local have been obtained" and that the application was "granted final approval, as it appears to meet all of the technical requirements of the ordinances and regulations of the Town of Gilmanton."

Recently though, the validity and finality of the site plan has come into question. In addition, the Bishops had been operating a restaurant without the "special exception" to the zoning ordinance they needed to do so. Marshall Bishop went before the town's Zoning Board of Adjustments a few months ago and received his special exception in a 4 to 1 vote.

However, according the to minutes of the Oct. 13 Planning Board meeting, Planning Board Vice-Chair Martin Martindale recommended that Bishop submit a new site plan application and begin the planning process anew. He went on to say that should the Bishops not file a new site plan by Nov. 10, the board should issue a cease-and-desist order that would stop him from operating. A motion to that effect passed by a 9 to 0 vote.

The Bishops say that for the five years their winery has been open, they have operated a thriving business. They also claim that when Marshall Bishop defeated former Selectman Brett Currier in the 2016 election for a one-year seat for selectman, Currier and his wife took out their own personal grudges on him and his business. He also claims that Planning Board Chair Wayne Ogni is a friend of the Curriers.

Legally, he claims that he has complied with all of the laws, regulations and ordinances of Gilmanton and the state and that he is willing to amicably address any "well-founded" concerns the Planning Board may have.

At the Oct. 13 Planning Board meeting, Bishop was asked to attend but sent a letter asking what specific information the Planning Board sought in regard to any violations of the laws and ordinances. He did not attend.

Bishop's attorney responded by saying that without knowing what specific laws or ordinances were being violated, having his client submit a complete new site plan was "premature."

Bishop's lawyer followed up with a second letter asking why the town had not responded to his first request for specific violations regarding the winery. He said the business was receiving letters of concern from its customers and that the Planning Board's actions were starting to harm the business, because people were reluctant to make reservations for the holidays since the board threatened to shut them down.

He restated that the Bishops desire to work with the Planning Board but said that his clients were willing to go to court to if the board continues to harm the business.

The Planning Board's attorney replied on Nov. 18 that the board insists that Bishop doesn't have an approved site plan and that when Bishop was told he needed to provide additional information, he replied that he was in full compliance. That letter contained the cease-and-desist order that was temporarily negated by both parties with the approval of the court.

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Former Lakeport Fire Station property to be put up for sale via open bid

LACONIA — After rejecting the offer by Erica Blizzard, who owns and operates the Lakeport Landing marina, to purchase the former Lakeport Fire Station building on Elm Street and a pair of adjoining lots, the City Council this week decided to put the properties up for sale by open, competitive bidding.

In September Blizzard offered to buy the three parcels, which together amount to less than half an acre, for their assessed land value of $127,700. Her offer fell on the heels of a settlement of a lawsuit she brought against the city challenging the council's sale of nearby property the city leased to Lakeport Landing Marina for 30 years then sold to its neighbor and competitor Irwin Marine, when the lease expired. With the rejection of the offer, the settlement is likely in jeopardy.

The lot housing the old Lakeport Fire Station is 0.32 acres and the lot abutting it to the rear of the building is 0.195 acres. The two lots include some 132 feet of municipal right-of-way — Railroad Avenue. The third lot, a 0.81 acre strip between Union Avenue and the railroad is what remains of the larger parcel the city had leased to Lakeport Landing but sold to Irwin Marine.

Following a non-public meeting on Monday night, Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) offered a motion to reject Blizzard's offer on the strength of a recent appraisal of the three parcels. He did not elaborate as to what those appraised values amounted to. Only Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) dissented and the motion carried five-to one.

Mayor Ed Engler said that the council has directed City Manager Scott Myers to present a plan on Dec. 12 for offering the properties for sale. Myers said that the lot lines would be redrawn to reestablish Railroad Avenue as a city street, shrinking the two largest lots. At the same time, a strip of land fronting Elm Street would be added to the lot housing the fire station.

Bidders for the property will be required to explain how and when they intend to redevelop it. Myers said that what he called a "a package deal" would include the proposed use of the three lots, the future of the fire station and the design of a new building and indicated that the council would expect the property to be redeveloped in a timely manner. He said that in weighing competitive bids the council expects to consider there and other factors alongside the bid prices in seeking to ensure the highest and best use of the property.

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Council says contest winner won't replace existing city flag

LACONIA — Although few could describe it and fewer have ever seen it, the official city flag will not be replaced, despite a competition to design a new flag that drew approximately 100 entries and will award $1,000 in prize money.

After eying the six best entries chosen by the Flag Redesign Committee, the City Council on Monday night voted five-to-one, with Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) who convened the committee dissenting, to keep the flag adopted in 1965, the only example of which hangs in the mayor's office at City Hall. A large painted replica is mounted on the front wall of the City Council Chamber.

The initiative to design and adopt a new city flag began with Breanna Henderson of Polished and Proper barbershop, who was inspired by watching a TED Talks program that convinced her that a new flag could enhance the identity and image of the city. The committee was convened and a competition was opened, with $1,000 of prize money to be shared among the top three designers chosen by the council.

"It's very easy to say no," said Henderson, who on Tuesday did not hide her disappointment, "Over a year of my time has been wasted on a council that has been sitting there for a decade." She said most of the designs were submitted by younger residents — 20 and 30 somethings. "This is very demographic they want to attract," she said, "but they don't do a very good job of keeping us engaged. I think the concept of change is what this council is not in favor of."

In presenting the six flags selected by the committee, Bownes explained that all conformed to the principles of "Good Flag, Bad Flag," a popular guide to flag design. They were simple, he said "so a child could draw it from memory after seeing it for the first time." They incorporated meaningful symbols and used a few basic colors. None bore either lettering or seals and all were distinctive, not duplicative.

"I want something that says Laconia," said Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5) after reviewing the six choices. "Nothing here floats my boat."

"They don't say Laconia," repeated Councilor Armand Bolduc (Ward 6).
Henderson explained that when a flag waves in the breeze neither lettering nor seals can be deciphered. She stressed the importance of the five principles for designing a "good" flag, noting that the designs could be incorporated into a wide variety of items to assert the identity of the city. But, she failed to impress the councilors.

Alhough the council said no to a new flag, Bownes insisted the competition should continue and the prizes be awarded. The councilors will each cast votes on the six finalists, with one point for their most favored design and six points for their least favored design. The lowest score will win $500, the runner-up $300 and the third place finisher $200. In other words, the council will spend $1,000 to keep the old flag.

"There's always a silver lining," Henderson remarked. "There's an election next year and I will pursue this further when the council changes."

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