By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Nearly a decade after a team sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested changing the zoning at The Weirs, a recommendation faintly echoed in the Master Plan of 2007, the City Council has proposed limiting residential development and encouraging commercial activity along the length of the main thoroughfare in the area.
The Weirs lies within the Commercial Resort District, which 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 US Route 3 (Endicott Street North) to the Meredith town line. It also includes property along both sides of NH Route 11-B (Endicott Street East) east of the roundabout to just beyond the Weirs Community Center. Both commercial and residential uses are currently permitted throughout the district.
Without altering the borders of the Commercial Resort District, the council has proposed delineating a corridor through it. The corridor would reach 400 from the center line of US Route 3 and NH Route 11-B on both sides of the road between the Meredith town line and White Oaks Road. Within the corridor, designated the Commercial Resort Corridor District, residential dwelling units would be confined to the upper stories of buildings that house commercial space on the ground floor.
Mayor Ed Engler, who prepared the plan, described its immediate purpose as "preventative." By limiting residential development along the corridor, land would be spared for commercial development to strengthen the city's property tax base. 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.
The value of commercial property and buildings accounts for just 15.8 percent of the total assessed valuation. Only in Berlin at 12.1 percent and Franklin at 13.4 percent is commercial property a smaller portion of the property tax base. Residential property represents 82.6 percent of the total assessed valuation, the largest share among the 13 cities in the state. The relative dearth of commercial property leaves owners of residential property to bear a disproportionate share of the property tax burden.
Land suited for commercial development is scarce. The northwest quarter of the city on either side of Meredith Center Road and Parade Road includes six state forests and a state park that together amount to a tenth of the land area of the city. The area is zoned for residential use and is not served by municipal utilities. Meanwhile, the Planning Department has identified 32 large lots in the city that are either vacant or underdeveloped. Altogether, these lots represent 465 acres, of which 28 lots covering 446 acres, or 96 percent of the total acreage, are in the Commercial Resort District, most of them along the proposed corridor.
The proposal catches The Weirs amid transition as what for many years was a summer tourist destination has increasingly become a seasonal home community, a change that will bear on the pace and pattern of its future development. Some 20 lodging establishments, including hotels, motels and cottage colonies, operate at The Weirs, but investment in residential development has dwarfed that in the hospitality industry.
Between 2000 and 2010, according to the United States Census, between 2000 and 2010, seasonal homes represented nearly two-thirds of the increase in the housing stock of the city. While the population fell 2.8 percent, from 16,411 to 15,951, the number of housing units climbed 15 percent, from 8,554 to 9,879, as 1,325 new units were built. At the same time, the number of occupied units rose by only 114, from 6,724 to 6,838, an increase of 1.6 percent, while the number of "vacant" units, including seasonal, rental and vacant units, jumped by 1,211, from 1,830 to 3,041, an increase of 66 percent. During the decade, the number of seasonal homes rose 55 percent, from 1,477 in 2000 to 2,293 in 2010 with the 816 additional seasonal units representing 62 percent of the growth in the total housing stock. With the increase seasonal homes grew from 17 percent to 23 percent of all dwelling units in the city. Seasonal properties add to the tax base without placing significant demands on municipal services.
Weirs Beach Village, 85 single-family homes on Endicott Street East, and Governor's Crossing, 89 single-family homes on on Endicott Street East were developed within the proposed corridor in the last decade. Southworth Development, LLC has built nearly two dozen townhouses along Scenic Road where it has also built one lodge with 24 condominium units and has plans to build three more. Lakewood Village, 53 single-family homes and 17 duplexes on 21 acres, is planned on Endicott Street East alongside the Weirs Community Park. And Brady Sullivan, the Manchester developer, seeks to construct nearly 300 units, both townhouses and condominiums, at Langley Cove on Weirs Boulevard.
While the stock of seasonal housing has grown, the number of rental units has shrunk as a number of cottage colonies, particularly along Weirs Boulevard, have converted to condominium ownership. With fewer rental units turning over every week or two, the volume of visitors to The Weirs has dwindled, diminishing the market for the recreational attractions. Both water slides have been closed for years. The Winnipesaukee Pier, once a venue for the best bands in the land, has not been a major draw for some time and has lingered on the market for several years. Recently, real estate agent Ernie Millette, who for a decade has marketed the lot that once housed Surf Coaster USA, told the Planning Board that developers of hospitality and recreational facilities have taken no interest in the property. He said that the season is too short and the market too small to support a significant investment in such facilities.
The impact of change is reflected in the experience of Rusty Bertholet, owner of the Alpenrose Plaza at 28-36 Endicott Street East, which consists of three buildings, including an amusement arcade, and a miniature golf course on 6 acres adjacent to the roundabout. When he acquired the property in 2001 for $1.2 million, he described it as 36 percent vacant and "distressed." Unable to sustain tenancies, he said that between 2006 and 2008 the annual income from the property fell by half. Nevertheless, in 2009 the city assessed the property for $2,872,000. Bertholet filed for an abatement, claiming that despite rents of $6 and $8 a square foot he could not draw or keep tenants. He calculated the property was worth $1,202,500. In 2010 the city reduced its assessment by $81,000, to $2,791,000 and a year later to $1,097.000. Today the property is assessed for $958,000.
Nevertheless, with the lake and the beach The Weirs will always remain a summer tourist destination, buoyed each spring by Motorcycle Week. The city is investing more than $1 million in improvements to Lakeside Avenue, which will include new water, sewer, drainage and street lighting along with underground utilities and a fresh streetscape. Moreover, the city has borrowed $300,000 to fund the restoration and stabilization of Weirs Beach, a project that would add between 60 and 75 feet to the width of the beach. City Manager Scott Myers said that work on the beach will begin once the engineering is complete and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services approves the project.
But, summer visitors and seasonal residents alone do not represent either a population base or consumer market sufficient to drive economic development at The Weirs. Russ Thibeault of Applied Economic Research has suggested that many seasonal homeowners have purchased their property in advance of their retirement and as they retire a significant number will make their seasonal home their primary residence. Likewise, Chris Duprey of Southworth Development ventured that a resident population would be required to overcome the limits of a short tourist season and foster commercial development. Catering to both residents and tourists, commercial development could be a mix of conventional retailing, restaurants and lodging, some operating throughout the year and all serving both residents and visitors.
The future of The Weirs will be shaped by market forces. As proposed the Commercial Resort Corridor District would ensure that future development includes a mix of commercial and residential uses that would cater to the needs of both seasonal residents and summer visitors.
This is at the intersection of White Oaks Road and Route 3, where the proposed zoning change would take effect, looking back toward The Weirs. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
New England Commercial Property Exchange lists the former Surf Coaster land for sale at $1,399,000. Developer Ernie Millette, who for a decade has marketed the lot said that the season is too short and the market too small to support a significant investment in such facilities. (From http://www.newenglandcommercialproperty.com/)