By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — After presenting a controversial proposal by the City Council to rezone The Weirs to the Zoning Task Force on Tuesday, Mayor Ed Engler said that when the Planning Board meets next week he will request that it schedule a public hearing on the essential elements of the plan on Nov. 1.
Engler stressed that while the council seeks to expedite the process "There is no rush for the Planning Board to make a final recommendation to the council." Instead, he explained that, once the Planning Board schedules a public hearing, property owners can no longer submit applications to undertake projects under the existing ordinance. "The clock will stop when the Planning Board schedules a public hearing," he said. At the same time, he noted that because many property owners at The Weirs leave the city in the winter, it is difficult to solicit representative and credible opinion from the public during the winter months.
The council has proposed designating a corridor through the Commercial Resort District, which encompasses most of The Weirs. 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, residential dwelling units would be confined to the upper stories of buildings that house commercial space on the ground floor. The proposal would also specify permitted uses inside and outside the corridor as well as change other regulations (see sidebar).
Engler, the architect of the proposal, told the task force that while all its components are "subject to discussion and change" it rests on what he called "two core principles" — encouraging commercial development as well as restricting residential development and prohibiting manufactured housing. He explained that although 35 percent commercial and 65 percent residential property represents a healthy balance, in Laconia commercial property represents "less than half that," only 16 percent of the assessed valuation, which places an undue burden on residential taxpayers. He said that nearly all the underdeveloped and undeveloped land in the city suited to commercial development is within the Commercial Resort District.
"By far, the most radical proposals," the mayor said, are those to eliminate altogether the requirement to set aside 25 percent of commercial sites as green space and to raise the limit on the height of buildings from 60 feet to 100 feet. He called the green space requirement "an onerous burden" on developers that does not exist in other parts of the state and places the city at a competitive disadvantage. Likewise, he said that the height restriction, together with the density limit of six units per acre, are "impediments to development." Both, he said, are "arbitrary" and asked "how many units are required in a 60-foot high-building to make a project viable?"
Several speakers, including Michael Foot of the Zoning Task Force, Dean Anson, chairman of the Conservation Commission and Robert Ames of Half Moon Enterprises, questioned the need to expedite the process of reviewing the proposal in light of its complexity and the many interests it would affect.
Engler pointed to recreational vehicle park at the corner of White Oaks Road and Endicott Street East, the presence of which has stymied redevelopment of the Surfcoaster USA property across the street. "That could happen on any property in that zone," he said. "That, to us, is the urgency." He noted all the recent development at The Weirs has been residential, which he said is "of limited benefit to the economy of the city. If the remainder of the land in the corridor is overrun by residential development, he said, "it will be forever taken off the table for commercial development. If that goes residential, we're screwed."
When Suzanne Perley, who chairs the Zoning Task Force, suggested the proposal would be part of the Master Plan, Engler firmly disagreed, reminding her that when the the former planning director was asked what zoning changes were proposed in the land use section of the plan, she said none.
Anson suggested that a public hearing on the proposal should be delayed until the spring to allow time for city departments and property owners to express their opinions. Engler replied that earlier this year the city manager wrote to about 100 property owners at The Weirs, including all those with land within the proposed corridor, to solicit their views and set aside time at four City Council meetings to discuss the issue, but less than a handful responded.
Steve Smith of Steven Smith & Associates of Gilford, a surveying and engineering firm, questioned some of the specifics of the proposal, like raising the building height and eliminating green space, but said, "I think the idea is great." Al Mitchell, who owns property at The Weirs, agreed "It all makes sense."
Warren Mitchell, who as chairman of the Planning Board, sought to slow the review process when the board met earlier this month but found himself in the minority, said little other than to say the board would consider a request to schedule a public hearing at its meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 4.
The former Surf Coaster property’s location across from a recreational vehicle park has stymied sales.(Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
So just where is the zone under consideration?
The Commercial Resort District 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 Endicott Street North (US Route 3) to the Meredith town line. It also includes property along both sides of Endicott Street East (NH Route 11-B) east of the roundabout to just beyond the Weirs Community Center. Both specified commercial and residential uses are permitted throughout the district.
The City Council has proposed dividing the district into two parts by carving a Commercial Resort Corridor District, designated CR2, out from the existing Commercial Resort District, which would become CR1. The corridor would be defined as the area extending 400 feet from either side of the center line of Endicott Street North (US Route 3) and Endicott Street East (NH Route 11-B) between the Meredith town line to the west and the center of the intersection with White Oaks Road to the east.
Within the corridor residential development, which is currently permitted throughout the Commercial Resort District, would be confined to the upper level of buildings and then only if the ground floor of the same building were put to commercial use. Restaurants, hotels, cinemas, arcades, nightclubs, stores, studios, galleries , banks, offices and marine sales and services would all be permitted within the corridor. But, campgrounds, flea markets, some services, commercial and industrial uses would be excluded.
In both the Commercial Resort Corridor and Commercial Resort districts any requirement to set aside a portion of lots as green space when the property is put to commercial use would be eliminated . The minimum of 60 percent of green space would remain for residential uses in the Commercial Resort District (CR1). The maximum height of buildings in the Commercial Resort Corridor District would be set at at 100 feet while the maximum height of residential and commercial structures would remain 35 feet and 60 feet respectively in the Commercial Resort District.