LACONIA — A proposed 90-unit apartment complex in the city’s South End could require city officials to face how best to strike a balance between providing sufficient housing that residents can afford while also ensuring that restrictions on development are applied fairly.

But it also begs the question of whether those restrictions are still sound or if they need to be re-examined in light of the realities of today’s economic conditions and lifestyles.

The proposal to build a cluster of three 30-unit apartment buildings on 9.4 acres off Province Street is slated to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment next Tuesday because the number of units being proposed far exceed what’s allowed under the zoning regulations in that part of the city.

Between 57 and 58 apartment units are the maximum number allowed on that amount of acreage. To build 90 units in accordance with density allowed in that area — six units per acre — would require 15 acres of land.

The applicant, Del R. Gilbert & Son Block Co. Inc. and its agent, attorney Philip Brouillard, say the variance is needed because, given increased construction costs, the complex needs to have 90 units in order for it to be economically practicable.

It will be the ZBA’s job to decide whether the request meets the legal requirements for a variance.

Economic factors

The state Supreme Court has ruled that zoning boards can take economic factors into consideration when deciding whether to grant a variance, according to Patrick Wood, a retired attorney who represented many landowners and developers before local land-use boards during his 40-plus years of legal practice in the Laconia area.

Wood said zoning regulations need to balance the interest of landowners against the community, and who comes out ahead.

“The ultimate test is whether the community is going to be harmed and is that harm is so great as to put the burden on the property owner,” Wood explained.

Flexibility needs to be part of the thinking, he said.

The city has more recently been working to put flexibility into its zoning and planning regulations.

In 2019 it created the Urban-Commercial Zone which runs along the Court Street-Union Avenue corridor, including the downtown and much of the Lakeport business district. Greater density is allowed in that zone — in the case of new multifamily housing as many as 20 units per acre. In addition, the city’s "performance zoning" can be employed for projects in that zone. Performance zoning allows the Planning Board to waive or loosen certain zoning restrictions if it is believed that the project will be an overall benefit to an area.

However, the land where the apartment complex is proposed lies outside the Urban-Commercial Zone and performance zoning does not apply there.

Zoning regulations are expected to be an outgrowth of a community's Master Plan. Laconia's current master plan was adopted 2 1/2 years ago.

City Planning Director Dean Trefethen said the Master Plan talks about the need for housing "for all income levels."    

Also relevant to the discussion is the lack of affordable housing — across the state, throughout the Lakes Region, and in Laconia.

“Zoning is not friendly to much multifamily development,” said Carmen Lorentz, who heads the nonprofit Lakes Region Community Developers, which has developed 366 units of affordable rental housing in the Greater Laconia area.

In the case of for-profit developers “the logic of needing more units to make (the project) worthwhile certainly holds up,” she said.

Studies show that many people in the Lakes Region are squeezed financially by what they spend every month on housing.

Spending 30 percent on housing (whether owned or rented) is considered financially sustainable.

But in the Lakes Region, 62 percent of homeowners are paying more than 30 percent, while 57 percent of renters are paying more than 30 percent, and for 21 percent of renters pay more than half their income toward housing expenses, according to statistics provided by the Lakes Region Planning Commission.

Economist Russ Thibeault, who runs Applied Economic Research in Laconia, has said the state has a housing deficit of about 21,000 units.

Lorentz said while she has no hard numbers for the Lakes Region’s housing deficit, the experience of her organization shows that housing at prices that low- and moderate-income families can afford fall far short of the demand.

She said vacancies for Lakes Region Community Developers last only a matter of days.

Trefethen agreed, saying that in Laconia an apartment is most often vacant for only as long “as it takes the landlord to repaint the walls.”

Former Mayor Ed Engler said the figures that limit housing density — the number of units in a given land area — can often be arbitrary and are not re-examined as frequently as they should be to ensure that they reflect current economic conditions.

Wood said the current density limitations go back to the early 1980s when, following the surge in multifamily housing project on Blueberry Lane, the city decided it needed to curb that kind of rapid growth.

During the mid-1970s, 220 rental units were added to the city's housing stock when the Wingate Village and Lakeshore Estates projects were developed.

Trefethen hoped the question of the appropriate building density, including that in the Residential-General Zone where the proposed project would be built, will be taken up by the Master Plan Steering Committee. He hoped the group will start meeting regularly later this month.

While Engler said he is not taking a position on the latest apartment proposal, he said, “The city should be listening” to the economic argument that is being put forth. “The city needs to ask ‘Is this a good argument?’.”

He said rather than bringing the matter to the ZBA for a variance, the question should be brought before the city’s Planning Department and Planning Board and then ultimately to the City Council to see if the density regulations should be changed.

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