The future of The Weirs - Zoning plan meant to encourage more commercial development (1345)

By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — Nearly a decade after a team sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested changing the zoning at The Weirs, a recommendation faintly echoed in the Master Plan of 2007, the City Council has proposed limiting residential development and encouraging commercial activity along the length of the main thoroughfare in the area.

The Weirs lies within the Commercial Resort District, which begins on Lake Street, just south of its junction with White Oaks Road, extends northward along Weirs Boulevard, includes the center of the Weirs and runs either side of US Route 3 (Endicott Street North) to the Meredith town line. It also includes property along both sides of NH Route 11-B (Endicott Street East) east of the roundabout to just beyond the Weirs Community Center. Both commercial and residential uses are currently permitted throughout the district.

Without altering the borders of the Commercial Resort District, the council has proposed delineating a corridor through it. The corridor would reach 400 from the center line of US Route 3 and NH Route 11-B on both sides of the road between the Meredith town line and White Oaks Road. Within the corridor, designated the Commercial Resort Corridor District, residential dwelling units would be confined to the upper stories of buildings that house commercial space on the ground floor.

Mayor Ed Engler, who prepared the plan, described its immediate purpose as "preventative." By limiting residential development along the corridor, land would be spared for commercial development to strengthen the city's property tax base. Laconia, with 20.1 square miles of land, is one of the smallest cities in the state. Only Somersworth, with 9.8 square miles, and Portsmouth, with 15.7 square miles, are smaller.

The value of commercial property and buildings accounts for just 15.8 percent of the total assessed valuation. Only in Berlin at 12.1 percent and Franklin at 13.4 percent is commercial property a smaller portion of the property tax base. Residential property represents 82.6 percent of the total assessed valuation, the largest share among the 13 cities in the state. The relative dearth of commercial property leaves owners of residential property to bear a disproportionate share of the property tax burden.

Land suited for commercial development is scarce. The northwest quarter of the city on either side of Meredith Center Road and Parade Road includes six state forests and a state park that together amount to a tenth of the land area of the city. The area is zoned for residential use and is not served by municipal utilities. Meanwhile, the Planning Department has identified 32 large lots in the city that are either vacant or underdeveloped. Altogether, these lots represent 465 acres, of which 28 lots covering 446 acres, or 96 percent of the total acreage, are in the Commercial Resort District, most of them along the proposed corridor.

The proposal catches The Weirs amid transition as what for many years was a summer tourist destination has increasingly become a seasonal home community, a change that will bear on the pace and pattern of its future development. Some 20 lodging establishments, including hotels, motels and cottage colonies, operate at The Weirs, but investment in residential development has dwarfed that in the hospitality industry.

Between 2000 and 2010, according to the United States Census, between 2000 and 2010, seasonal homes represented nearly two-thirds of the increase in the housing stock of the city. While the population fell 2.8 percent, from 16,411 to 15,951, the number of housing units climbed 15 percent, from 8,554 to 9,879, as 1,325 new units were built. At the same time, the number of occupied units rose by only 114, from 6,724 to 6,838, an increase of 1.6 percent, while the number of "vacant" units, including seasonal, rental and vacant units, jumped by 1,211, from 1,830 to 3,041, an increase of 66 percent. During the decade, the number of seasonal homes rose 55 percent, from 1,477 in 2000 to 2,293 in 2010 with the 816 additional seasonal units representing 62 percent of the growth in the total housing stock. With the increase seasonal homes grew from 17 percent to 23 percent of all dwelling units in the city. Seasonal properties add to the tax base without placing significant demands on municipal services.

Weirs Beach Village, 85 single-family homes on Endicott Street East, and Governor's Crossing, 89 single-family homes on on Endicott Street East were developed within the proposed corridor in the last decade. Southworth Development, LLC has built nearly two dozen townhouses along Scenic Road where it has also built one lodge with 24 condominium units and has plans to build three more. Lakewood Village, 53 single-family homes and 17 duplexes on 21 acres, is planned on Endicott Street East alongside the Weirs Community Park. And Brady Sullivan, the Manchester developer, seeks to construct nearly 300 units, both townhouses and condominiums, at Langley Cove on Weirs Boulevard.

While the stock of seasonal housing has grown, the number of rental units has shrunk as a number of cottage colonies, particularly along Weirs Boulevard, have converted to condominium ownership. With fewer rental units turning over every week or two, the volume of visitors to The Weirs has dwindled, diminishing the market for the recreational attractions. Both water slides have been closed for years. The Winnipesaukee Pier, once a venue for the best bands in the land, has not been a major draw for some time and has lingered on the market for several years. Recently, real estate agent Ernie Millette, who for a decade has marketed the lot that once housed Surf Coaster USA, told the Planning Board that developers of hospitality and recreational facilities have taken no interest in the property. He said that the season is too short and the market too small to support a significant investment in such facilities.

The impact of change is reflected in the experience of Rusty Bertholet, owner of the Alpenrose Plaza at 28-36 Endicott Street East, which consists of three buildings, including an amusement arcade, and a miniature golf course on 6 acres adjacent to the roundabout. When he acquired the property in 2001 for $1.2 million, he described it as 36 percent vacant and "distressed." Unable to sustain tenancies, he said that between 2006 and 2008 the annual income from the property fell by half. Nevertheless, in 2009 the city assessed the property for $2,872,000. Bertholet filed for an abatement, claiming that despite rents of $6 and $8 a square foot he could not draw or keep tenants. He calculated the property was worth $1,202,500. In 2010 the city reduced its assessment by $81,000, to $2,791,000 and a year later to $1,097.000. Today the property is assessed for $958,000.

Nevertheless, with the lake and the beach The Weirs will always remain a summer tourist destination, buoyed each spring by Motorcycle Week. The city is investing more than $1 million in improvements to Lakeside Avenue, which will include new water, sewer, drainage and street lighting along with underground utilities and a fresh streetscape. Moreover, the city has borrowed $300,000 to fund the restoration and stabilization of Weirs Beach, a project that would add between 60 and 75 feet to the width of the beach. City Manager Scott Myers said that work on the beach will begin once the engineering is complete and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services approves the project.

But, summer visitors and seasonal residents alone do not represent either a population base or consumer market sufficient to drive economic development at The Weirs. Russ Thibeault of Applied Economic Research has suggested that many seasonal homeowners have purchased their property in advance of their retirement and as they retire a significant number will make their seasonal home their primary residence. Likewise, Chris Duprey of Southworth Development ventured that a resident population would be required to overcome the limits of a short tourist season and foster commercial development. Catering to both residents and tourists, commercial development could be a mix of conventional retailing, restaurants and lodging, some operating throughout the year and all serving both residents and visitors.

The future of The Weirs will be shaped by market forces. As proposed the Commercial Resort Corridor District would ensure that future development includes a mix of commercial and residential uses that would cater to the needs of both seasonal residents and summer visitors.

08-19 Weirs Route 3

This is at the intersection of White Oaks Road and Route 3, where the proposed zoning change would take effect, looking back toward The Weirs. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)

08-19 Surf Coaster land for sale

New England Commercial Property Exchange lists the former Surf Coaster land for sale at $1,399,000. Developer Ernie Millette, who for a decade has marketed the lot  said that the season is too short and the market too small to support a significant investment in such facilities. (From http://www.newenglandcommercialproperty.com/)

 

 

At Colonial tours, memories fill in the blanks (628)

By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — There's an empty floor where the rows of seats once stood, and the concession stand is gone, but there were more than enough memories on Wednesday to fill any voids that currently exist at the Colonial Theatre on Main Street in downtown Laconia.

While the demolition phase of the historic theater's rejuvenation project has been completed, and while it awaits the engineering and renovation phases, the Belknap Economic Development Council has opened the doors to the theater for public tours during Wednesdays in August.

As the stroke of noon approached on Aug. 17, a line of people stretched down the sidewalk and to the corner of Canal Street. Justin Slattery, executive director of the BEDC, said that turnout for previous tours has been similarly robust.One final tour remains, from noon to 1 p.m. on Aug. 24.

The theater opened in April 1914. Its colorful frescoes, marbled floors, ornate plasterwork and gilded finishes fashioned by Italian artisans placed it squarely among the grandest entertainment venues in New England. After the World War I, live performances steadily gave way to motion pictures, and in 1983 the auditorium was partitioned, horizontally and vertically, into five theaters, shrouding the finishes behind blank walls.

The theaters had been dark for many years, leaving the 20,000-square-foot property an increasingly unfortunate eyesore in the middle of a downtown that seems to be rebounding from a period of depressed economic activity. There are now a selection of new restaurants, and a new coffee shop, ready to serve theater goers. So, it was widely celebrated last year when the city and the BEDC announced a partnership to acquire the property for $1.4 million and embark upon a $15 million renovation, aimed at restoring the theater to near its original design, and returning it to the role of the downtown's premier entertainment and culture center.

The crew from Bonnette, Page & Stone Corporation carefully removed the partitions and furniture that divided the Colonial into several small theaters, while leaving the ornate details of its original design intact. It seemed that every person in attendance on Aug. 17 was reliving memories of the theater's prior grandeur.

"My grandfather, Dexter Royce, was the first projectionist here," said Rebecca Ekholm. Her grandfather worked in the projection booth for about 20 years, until the mid-1950s. "I used to come here every Saturday," she said.

Lucinda Burack was happy to see the theater returning to its original layout.

"I remember when they broke it up into four theaters. It was so appalling," she said.

For Claudia Wright, the Colonial was where she found her first job, as an usher – or, in those days, an "usherette." She toured the theater on Wednesday with her son, daughter-in-law and grandson.

"We had to wear little blue skirts and a white blouse, and they supplied us with a jacket," she said. Her job was to take movie goers' tickets, show them to their seats, and to scold young viewers who propped their feet up on the seat in front of them.

"It was fun, because I got to go to the movies for free," said Wright. Her favorite film from that era was the 1957 romance "April Love," starring Pat Boone and Shirley Jones.

Philip Lagueux, who toured the project on Wednesday with his wife, Bunny, might have been one of those kids scolded by Wright. His family moved to Laconia when he was a boy in the 1950s, and he recalls being able to take in a show with only a single coin.

"I'd get a quarter and come to the movies, buy popcorn and everything for a quarter," he said. "Fifty years ago, it was a beautiful theater," Philip said.

Bunny added, "They're going to make it beautiful again."

08-19 Colonia tour 1

The weekly tours of the Colonial Theatre's renovation progress have been well-attended. There will be one more tour available, noon to 1 p.m. on Aug. 24. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)

08-19 Colonia tour 2

Claudia Wright, at left, worked as an "usherette" at the Colonial when she was 16. She's shown here with grandson Chris Wright, daughter-in-law Lin Wright, and son Dennis Wright. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)

Laconia police have the 'busiest summer on record'

By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — Police Chief Chris Adams told the Laconia Police Commission Thursday that this summer has been one of the busiest on record.

He said in July alone, there were 200 more calls for service than there were last July and the activity increase is spread over all three shifts.

"I don't know if it's the weather or what," Adams said.

In July, police made 129 arrests, conducted 428 motor vehicle stops, issued 347 warnings and 26 citations, and investigated 53 car accidents. On the positive side, he said there were no fatal crashes in July.

Adams said 15 of the 53 accidents were caused by inattentive drivers, including some that involved cell phone use. Lt. Thomas Swett said he has applied for a grant to help with enforcement of the hands-free law.

Adams also told the commission that there have been quite a few heroin/fentanyl overdoses in recent months and that some of them are suspected to involve a drug that goes by the nickname "bath salts."

He said Swett has put together an application for some of the $1.5 million appropriated in the state budget to combat opioid addiction. Swett said that if the grant is approved, the money will be spent on prevention, treatment and enforcement in about equal parts.

Adams said the department did very well during its recent re-accreditation process through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies or CALEA and, but for a few minor things, he said the department scored very well.

As to accreditation, resident Dennis Lintz noted that during the CALEA public comment period, residents were given 10 minutes each for public comment, while the commission only allows two minutes of public comment for each person.

Lt. Allan Graton said that the length of time for CALEA is because the accreditation process only occurs every three to four years but the police commission meets every month.

Commissioner Thomas Tarr said he contacted about eight or nine other police commissions in the state and learned that on average, they allow between two and three minutes per person.
Lintz has attended nearly every meeting of the commission in the past two years. His primary complaint is the department's alleged use of confidential informants and thinks that cutting them breaks for their information somehow led to the death of one teenager and the serious injuries to another who were stuck by a car in 2013 on Messer Street.

To this end, Lintz has also peppered the department with Right to Know requests that have taken hundreds of man hours to process.

Nevertheless, Lintz said Thursday that he feels that a two-minute limit on public comment restricts his right to free speech.