Proposal for old Surf Coaster property meets resistance
By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — A proposal to construct a storage facility for boats, automobiles and recreational vehicles on the property that last housed Surf Coaster USA at The Weirs got short shrift when the Planning Board held a conceptual review of the project this week.
The 11.3-acre lot lies at the junction of White Oaks Road and Endicott Street East overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee in the commercial resort district. The property is owned by Weirs Beach Management LLC, a consortium headed by Rick Hassler of Gilford, which purchased it for $600,000 in 2001. The water park ceased to operate about 10 years ago and ever since Hassler has sought without success to market the property as the site of a resort hotel or recreation complex.
Charlie Morgan, who owns and operates Vault Motor Storage Inc. of Merrimack said there are three elements to his plan for the property. The parking lot, which has 287 spaces, each 10 feet wide, would be used for outdoor boat storage throughout the year. A 140,000-square-foot building, tiered to the sloping terrain, would provide heated storage for boats, cars and RVs. Finally, Morgan said that the remaining two acres fronting on Endicott Street East could be developed as a restaurant or any other use the community found appropriate.
Morgan stressed that the facility would cater to well-to-do patrons storing expensive, exotic and valuable vehicles. Prices for storage at the Merrimack facility start at $175 per month.
Boat storage is a permitted use in the commercial resort district, but the storage of vehicles and RVs is not. Consequently, the project would require a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Warren Hutchins, chairman of the Planning Board, opened the public hearing by reading a letter from City Councilor Ava Doyle (Ward 1) describing the project as "disastrous" and "counterproductive." She feared it would have "a negative impact on surrounding properties" and was not in keeping with the Master Plan. The Weirs, Doyle said, "is experiencing a rebirth," which she warned would be jeopardized by building and operating a storage facility on the lot.
Hutchins himself described the property as "pivotal" for the future of The Weirs and advised Morgan there are many other sites in the city more suitable for a storage facility. He said that resort owners at The Weirs have made significant investments in their properties and are intent on sustaining The Weirs as a resort destination.
Fred Clausen of Proctor's Cottages echoed Doyle, then referring to the RV park on the other corner of junction of White Oaks Road and Endicott Street East, said "the trailer park is a big blemish," explaining that the view from the water is particularly unsightly.
"As a 50-year resident, I'm disappointed," said Denise Poirer of Abakee Cottages. "This is the wrong place for storage." She said a hotel or recreational facility would be an appropriate use for the property and would contribute much more to economic vitality of The Weirs.
Bill Contardo of the Planning Board reminded his colleagues that Al Mitchell, who owns property on Endicott Street North, withdrew a proposal to build construct a storage facility when businesses and homeowners at The Weirs expressed their misgivings. Moreover, he said, when Peter Morrissette, who acquired the lot housing St. Helena's Mission Church, proposed using it for storage, the board rejected the plan.
Among the board members, only Mike Limanni questioned dismissing Morgan's proposal out of hand. He pointed out that despite robust property markets in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the property has not been redeveloped, but has remained vacant. He asked how many resorts have been built on 11 acres in the past 40 years and when told none wondered why the board expected one to be built in the next 10 years.
Ernie Millette, a real estate agent who has spent a decade seeking to market the property, told the board he had dealt with 70 prospects, including hoteliers and developers of recreational facilities. He said that many "ran the numbers" only to find that the season is too short to recoup the investment required to construct a resort hotel or recreational attraction. Trader Joe's, the grocery store chain, found the property "too far off the beaten track."
Hassler recalled one developer who said "Can you imagine someone at the Marriott giving directions, telling a guest to turn left at the trailer park?"
Acting Planning Director Brandee Loughlin reminded the board of the definition of the commercial resort district as expressed by the zoning ordinance. The district, the ordinance reads, "is primarily intended to set aside areas where establishments catering to the dining, lodging and recreational needs of tourists and seasonal residents may be located" and continues to refer to "open space," "attractive landscaping" and "small shops."