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Planning Board votes to ask City Council to change rules governing electronic signs

LACONIA — The Planning Board last night unanimously endorsed the changes to the zoning ordinance recommended by the Zoning Task Force to address the proliferation of electronic signage.
Following the vote,Suzanne Perley, who chairs the task force, said that she arranged with City Manager Scott Myers to present an explanation of the proposal to the City Council when it meets on Monday, May 12, but was unsure whether the council would take a vote that night or at a later meeting.
The amendment to the ordinance distinguishes between two types of "electronic message center" (EMC) — "static" and "dynamic." Static electronic signs are those on which neither the copy nor pictures change during the message while their dynamic counterparts appear to move or change as they present a stream of images or words that fly in, fade out, rotate and scroll across the face of the sign.
Neither type of electronic sign would be permitted in the six residential districts. Where they are permitted the dimensions and heights of signs must conform to those of freestanding signs in the specific district. Moreover, the electronic portion of the signs must not exceed 75 percent of the total area of the sign, a provision that ensures that all such signs are framed.
EMC-dynamic display signs would be confined to the commercial resort district, which includes the Weirs, and permitted there only by special exception.
EMC-static display signs would be excluded from the downtown riverfront district but permitted in the commercial resort district and permitted by special exception in the professional, business central, business central/industrial, commercial, industrial park, industrial and airport industrial districts.
After some discussion the Planning Board accepted the recommendation of the task force that the display, whether images or words, on EMC-static display signs not change more frequently than every five minutes. Steve Weeks, a longtime realtor who served on the task force, noted that in five minutes a driver traveling at 30 miles-per-hour would cover two-and-a-half miles and suggested the frequency be reduced to one minute.
Ben Barr of Watchfire, one of two domestic manufacturers of EMCs, said that signs on federal highways can change every 15 seconds and offered that one minute was "reasonable." He knew of no data that indicated that signs have caused accidents.
"Our concern is the safety of the person operating the motor vehicle and the person walking on the sidewalk," said board member Jay Tivnan.
Don Vachon, his colleague, said that in seeking greater frequency business owners are "asking for more return on their dollar," adding that electronic signs represent a significant investment.
Planning Director Shanna Saunders reminded the board of the Master Plan, which places a premium on "community character." She said that if the board opted for a frequency of one minute and came to regret its decision, it could not be undone.

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 May 2014 12:40

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Council committee recommends doing away wiht primaries for contests with 1 or 2 candidates

LACONIA — The Government Operations and Ordinances Committee of the City Council this week agreed to propose an amendment to the City Charter that would authorize the City Clerk to declare a primary election unnecessary if no more than two candidates file for any particular city office.

The committee also agreed to recommend that the filing period for municipal elections, which currently opens on the first Wednesday in June and close on the following Friday, be moved to August, approximately a month before the primary on the second Tuesday of September.

Mayor Ed Engler suggested changing the rules for write-in candidates in contested primary elections. The two candidates receiving the most votes in the primary are declared the winners and placed on the ballot of the municipal election in November. Engler proposed adding a rider specifying "unless the candidate receiving the second most votes had not filed declaration of candidacy and received fewer than 10 write-in votes."

Engler explained that he seeks to ensure that any write-in candidate who earns a place on the general election ballot has demonstrated an intent to serve by mounting a write-in campaign as reflected by polling a minimum number of votes. He said that for some years individuals with no prior intention of serving have qualified for a place on the ballot with less than handful of write-in votes.

The committee referred Engler's proposal to the city attorney for review.

The committee will present its recommendation to the City Council, when it meets on Monday, May 12. If the council agrees, it will begin the process of amending the charter, which includes a holding public hearing on the proposed changes and placing the question on the general election ballot in November.

The committee stopped short of doing away with primary elections altogether, the alternative proposal offered by City Clerk Mary Reynolds. Laconia is one of three of the state's 13 cities to conduct municipal primary elections. In both the other two — Manchester and Keene —the charters authorize the city clerk to deem a primary election election unnecessary if no more than two candidates file for any particular office.

In a memorandum, Reynolds explained that in 1995 voters eliminated partisan elections, in which party caucuses nominated the candidates for mayor and City Council, and instead introduced primary elections to choose the two candidates who appeared on the municipal election ballot.

Along with the mayor and city councilors, primary elections are also held to nominate candidates for the the seven seats on the School Board, whose members serve staggered terms, requiring a primary every year, and three seats on the Police Commission.
Since the change was introduced, relatively few primary elections have been contested, and very few voters have cast ballots. For example, in 1997, when the first primary was held, only one candidate entered the primary for City Council in each of the six wards and only two candidates entered the mayoral primary. With no contested races, just 7 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
In the eight primary elections between 1997 and 2011 voter turnout has averaged 9 percent. In three of the past eight elections — in 2003, 2009 and 2011 — primary elections were held even though there were not more than two candidates for either mayor or any of the six council seats. In 2011, only 259 of 8,422, or 3 percent of registered voters went to the polls, just 21 of them in Ward 2 and another 22 in Ward 5, at a cost to the city of approximately $39 a vote. Last year when there were three candidates for mayor but no more than two for any of six city council seats the turnout was 6 percent.
Reynolds said that cost of conducting municipal primary elections is approximately $8,600, which does not include about $1,000 for police details at the polling stations at Woodland Heights Elementary School and Laconia Middle School. The cost consists of $3,900 for printing ballots, $1,000 for materials at polling stations and $3,700 in wages of poll workers.

Despite the cost, a majority of the council appears unwilling to jettison the primary election. Without a primary, they fear, more than two candidates could enter the municipal election, creating a risk of splitting the vote so as to ensure the election of a candidate representing a minority of the electorate.

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 May 2014 12:35

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City will step up code enforcement effort

LACONIA — One day last week Fire Chief Ken Erickson pulled his command vehicle to a stop across from two vacant buildings at the corner of Webster and Adams streets. The space between them was strewn with discarded furniture and belongings, overlooked by a small barn, slumping under the weight of time.

"Right now this is the worst in the city," Erickson said. Climbing on to the porch of the larger of the two buildings, he pushed open the door, stepped inside and shouted "fire chief, anyone in there!" He went to other building and did the same. Abandoned and unsecured, the property, Erickson said, is both an eyesore and a hazard. He said that it would not be the first vacant building to attract people in search of shelter and warmth, who light fires to heat a meal or fight the cold.

"How would you like to be the guy next door?' Erickson asked, pointing to a gleaming white fenced New Englander without a picket out of place or a shutter askew.

Passing a number of occupied properties where equipment, furniture, mattresses, toys and bags of trash were scattered about the yard or piled high against the building, Erickson said apart from detracting from the appearance of the neighborhood such conditions posed a health risk and fire hazard. "What's worse," he said, "it spreads until the whole neighborhood goes downhill."

In 2009, when the City Council and department managers held a series of strategic planning sessions, enhancing the appearance of public and private property emerged as a high priority. At the time Councilor Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) called attention to the growing number of abandoned properties, particularly foreclosed homes in possession of financial institutions.

City Manager Scott Myers said yesterday that when he succeeded Eileen Cabanel in June 2011 the city had been without a code enforcement officer for a year. When a search failed to produce a suitable candidate, he said that the code enforcement function was administratively attached to the Planning Department and it entered a two-year contract with John Turner Consulting of Dover for building inspection services. Myers noted that at the time major construction projects were underway at Lakes Region General Hospital and Laconia High School. The city entered a similar arrangement with McCusker Consulting last year.

Myers acknowledged that fewer resources were assigned to property maintenance. "We more or less took a reactive approach," he said, "by responding to complaints when we received them." He estimated that between 20 and 22 hours per week was spent on property maintenance issues. Nevertheless, there were 202 property maintenance cases in fiscal year 2011, almost twice as many as the year before.

However, beginning with the 2013-2014 budget the hours for property maintenance were increased to 26 per week. Myers said a vacant position is in the process of being filled and that the job description has been strengthened with the expectation that the successful applicant spend 80-percent of the hours in the field identifying and addressing property maintenance issues. At the same time, Myers said that all city employees, especially those who regularly travel around the city, have been advised to serve as "eyes and ears" by reporting situations needing attention. "We're taking a much more pro-active approach," he said.

Myers said that the city also hopes to introduce an electronic inspection platform that would enable the agents of the different departments responsible for inspections — chiefly the Fire, Planning, Public Works and Water departments — to use hand-held devices to communicate with another about the scheduling and completion of inspections. The system would also enable property owners to make a single payment for the various permits they require.

Myers said that consolidating all inspections, including those conducted by the code enforcement director, in the Fire Department is being contemplated. With the proposed renovation and expansion of Central Station there will be sufficient space to house the necessary personnel. Moreover, the addition of four firefighters, which the city hopes to retain when the federal funding for the positions expires next spring, has increased the capacity and flexibility of the Fire Department to conduct inspections without resorting to overtime.

The Fire Department is currently responsible for the interior of all buildings and the chief serves as the city health officer. Myers said that its is not uncommon for fire departments to manage code enforcement, though just as often it falls to the planning department.

Erickson believes that along with closer enforcement, the ordinance should be strengthened. The duty of the Code Enforcement Director "to enforce all laws relating to the construction, alteration, removal and demolition of buildings and structures" as well as enforcement of the BOCA (Building Officials Code Administrators International) Property Maintenance Code, which addresses safety and sanitation.

Without disagreeing, Myers said that enforcing aesthetic standards, which are inherently subjective, can be challenging. A city ordinance, entitled "certain accumulations prohibited," forbids individuals and companies dumping or keeping "offensive matter" on their property so near to public spaces or adjoining properties as to jeopardize public health or impair the use, occupation and enjoyment of neighboring properties. The violation carries a maximum fine of $500.

Myers said that the first response should be to assist property owner's attempts to maintain their premisses, stressing that enforcement is costly and lengthy, especially when it applies to absentee landlords. He recalled that recently the city advertised in the "Los Angeles Times" in an effort to track a landlord to his last known address. He said that Jim Sawyer, the police prosecutor, has been assisting with the most difficult cases. Furthermore, he pointed out that the municipalities possess only what authority over private property owners the Legislature grants them.

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 May 2014 12:25

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Meredith preparing for June sculpture walk

MEREDITH — In June some 15 locations around town will be graced with original sculptures, fashioned by artists from New Hampshire and New England from a variety of materials, with the opening of the first leg of the Sculpture Walk, sponsored by the Greater Meredith Program.

Bev Lapham, co-chair of the committee managing the project, told the Board of Selectmen this week that after inviting applications from 150 sculptors and reviewing about 50 submissions the jury has chosen some 30 pieces as appropriate for public display. Meanwhile, the committee has scouted more than two dozen locations, including public parks, town streets, commercial properties and private residences, where the sculptures will be placed.

Each sculpture will be mounted, together with a plaque describing the work and identifying the artist. All the pieces are on loan and are not for sale, but anyone is welcome to contact an artist and commission a sculpture. The committee will prepare a brochure and walking map to accompany the grand opening on July 1.

Lapham said that the Greater Meredith Program intends to place more than two dozen sculptures at strategic locations over the course of the next two years to add "artistic excitement " and encourage foot traffic downtown.

Lapham urged those interested in the project to visit the Greater Meredith Program website (www.greatermeredithprogram.com) or the Meredith Sculpture Walk Facebook page.

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 May 2014 01:02

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