LACONIA — A judge has ruled that the Laconia Zoning Board acted properly when it rejected a proposal to construct and youth camp and conference center on an island in Paugus Bay.
Belknap Superior Court Judge James D. O’Neill III ruled that the plan submitted by New Hampshire-Big Island to construct a girls’ camp and conference/retreat center on the 2.2 acre Big Island did not meet the requirements laid down in the city’s zoning ordinance for development in the residential-single family zone. He further rejected the developer’s contention that the camp would be a secondary use of the property.
Big Island’s owner, Scott Everett, said he might appeal the ruling.
New Hampshire Big Island first requested approval of plans to put a girls’ camp on the island in 2014. After that plan was denied by the ZBA, it submitted the dual-purpose plan last year. The ZBA voted that plan down as well, 4-0, in November, citing concerns over safety, boat, traffic, wetlands impacts, light pollution and strain on city services.
The board’s hearings on Big Island’s proposals attracted many nearby property owners on the mainland — about 1,500 feet away — who strongly objected to the plans.
In his 11-page ruling issued Friday, O’Neill rejected Big Island’s argument that the conference center would be the primary use of the property, with the girls’ camp being secondary. The judge wrote the opposite was the case because the camp would take up much more of the island’s land area than the conference center.
“The girls’ camp activities appear to occupy a larger portion of the property than the conference center,” O’Neill wrote, “and there is no apparent overlap between the activities of the two proposed uses.”
Under Big Island’s plans the camp would run for six to eight weeks during the summer, with the conference center operating during the spring and fall. Camp sessions would have an enrollment of 40 girls at the most, according to the plans, while the conference center would accommodate groups of up to 60 people.
O’Neill further found that the camp activities could not be reasonably interpreted as “constituting a meeting, conference, or seminar.”
In addition O’Neill rejected Big Island’s position that the girls’ camp was an accessory use of the conference center.
“There is no reasonable relationship between the operation of a conference center and the girls’ camp,” the judge stated.
City ordinance allows conference centers in the residential-single family zone by special exception, but not youth camps, according to city Planning Director Dean Trefethan.
Everett said Monday he was surprised and frustrated by the ruling.
"You do everything right, do all the right things, go within the confines of the law, and then three people on my street don't like the project along with a lady on the board that boats in the area, and it gets denied," Everett said.
He said he would consider appealing the court's decision.
"I wonder if the whole state is this way, or just this city," Everett said. "Other cities, like Meredith, seems to be able to do development that works."
He said Rosi Dennett, a consultant who worked on the project for him, was surprised at how the proposal was treated in the city review process.
"She said that in her 35 years of doing this, she has never seen it as biased as it is here. It's unbelievable."