LACONIA — After a heated meeting, city leaders agreed Monday to move quickly with a proposal for a Historic District Commission as a way to preserve Laconia’s oldest buildings, including the circa-1929 St. Joseph Church.
In an emotional appeal before a council committee, City Councilor Andrew Hosmer said everything possible should be done to save the church. He countered arguments that city action couldn’t be done in time to ward off the wrecking ball.
At the direction of the City Council, City Manager Scott Myers sent Bishop Peter Libasci a letter Friday asking for details about the bishop’s plans to raze the church before selling the property. The bishop has not revealed the name of the buyer or the intended use of the real estate.
Hosmer said Myers letter will likely do little.
“The idea that we think a letter to the Diocese of Manchester is going to get some degree of transparency, and I’m talking about my church, I’d be shocked if we got a letter back from the diocese saying, ‘You’re right City of Laconia, let me share a little information, who the buyer is, estimated cost and we’re going to let you know what we are going to do with the property,’" Hosmer said.
“Until this point it’s been nothing but obfuscation on behalf of the Diocese of Manchester as to was the property going to be posted for sale, when, for how long, and was there a potential buyer in the wings. Nothing has been straightforward and transparent in this process.”
He said the diocese wants to demolish the church in July so it can close on the sale of the property.
“That timetable has nothing to do with our strong feelings about that church and these parishioners or the citizens of this city,” Hosmer said. “They don’t care, I’m convinced. Therefore, I’m not going to be paralyzed because I’m afraid of what this diocese is going to do. We should pursue every available means to prevent the demolishment of that church.”
Ultimately, City Manager Scott Myers was instructed to draw up a proposal for a Historic District Commission. That plan could then be acted on in short order in special meetings of the City Council and the Planning Commission.
The council committee will discuss the proposal at 5 p.m. on June 11. The City Council could take it up at a special meeting two days later. The Planning Board could then hold its own special meeting to discuss it.
Speed is of the essence because once the diocese seeks a demolition permit, the city has a limited amount of time to consider the request, but doesn’t have the power to deny it.
Under city codes, that permit would be considered at the next monthly meeting of the Heritage Commission. If the commission was not in favor of the permit, it could petition the City Council for up to an additional 60-day period before the permit is issued.
City Councilor David Bownes said that if a Historic District Commission was formed, the city could deny a demolition request. That decision could be appealed through the courts.
Several members of a group formed to save the church testified before the council committee Monday to urge that the city form a Historic District Commission. The district would also take in the library, the train station and other historic buildings nearby.
“I would urge the committee here to dig deep and really consider the idea of a Historic District Commission because it is not just St. Joe’s,” Tara Shore, operations and program manager at the Belknap Mill, said at the meeting.
She said the loss of St. Joseph Church would leave a gaping hole in the city’s character, but other historic buildings could also be in danger if a Historic District Commission is not formed.
“It could be the train station, honestly, it could be the Belknap Mill it could be the Busiel Mill, it could be the Busiel House,” she said.
Jane Whitehead, chairwoman of the Laconia Heritage Commission, said a historic district could boost the economy of the area and bring up property values.
“Certainly it preserves a pleasing character that would attract business and draw people to the downtown, which at the moment is almost empty at least on the Pleasant Street side of town,” she said.
Councilor Bownes initially said the most productive path would be to reach an accommodation with the diocese. He said it might not be possible to form a Historic District Commission in time to save the church.