Big Island Hearing

John Arnold, the attorney for New Hampshire Big Island, argues in Belknap Superior Court Monday on behalf of a proposed conference center and youth camp in Paugus Bay. At right is Laura Spector-Morgan, attorney for the Laconia Zoning Board of Adjustment which last year voted against the project. Behind Arnold are Scott Everett, the head of New Hampshire Big Island, and his 10-year-old daughter, Abigale. (Michael Mortensen/Laconia Daily Sun)

LACONIA — A superior court judge will have to decide whether the development being proposed for Big Island in Paugus Bay is first and foremost a youth camp or a conference center.

At a hearing in Belknap County Superior Court Monday, attorneys for New Hampshire Big Island and the Laconia Zoning Board argued whether a decision by the ZBA last year to reject the project conformed to the city’s zoning ordinance.

Scott Everett, the head of New Hampshire Big Island, has proposed building a conference center and girls’ camp on the 2.2-acre island, and sought a special exception from the ZBA in order to proceed with the project.

Last November, the board rejected that plan, 4-0, citing concerns over safety, boat traffic, wetlands impacts, light pollution and strain on city services.

The board's hearing on Big Island's requests to develop the island attracted many nearby property owners on the mainland — about 1,500 feet away — who strongly object to the proposal.

Justice James D. O’Neill III heard opposing arguments in which Big Island attorney John Arnold said the proposed facility would by and large be a conference center with the girls camp as a secondary — or ancillary — use, while the city’s attorney, Laura Spector-Morgan, maintained just the opposite.

The issue of the property’s primary use is critical because Laconia’s zoning ordinance allows conference centers — but not youth camps — in residential single-family zones by special exception.

Arnold told the judge that the conference facility, which would accommodate groups of up to 60 people, would operate during two seasons — spring and fall — whereas the nature camp for a maximum of 40 girls, ages 8 to 14, would operate six to eight weeks during the summer.

Spector-Morgan argued that the project would predominantly be a girls’ camp. She said Everett only submitted the dual-use proposal after his application to put a girls’ camp on the island was denied in 2014.

The judge could order the ZBA to rehear Everett’s application, but Everett felt that, given the board’s unanimous opposition last year, that would be futile.

“I hope he [the judge] approves our plan or rejects it,” he said after the hearing.

O’Neill gave the attorneys a week to file any additional written arguments. He gave no indication how soon he would issue his ruling.

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