‘Smart growth’ effort under way in Laconia
by John Koziol, "The Citizen of Laconia", December 12, 2006
An effort to develop "smart growth" zoning regulations for the downtown, Lakeport and The Weirs has gotten underway in earnest.
Because of its emphasis on "smart growth" in the updated Master Plan, Laconia in March became the first municipality in New Hampshire to receive an Environmental Protection Agency technical-assistance grant.
Worth as much as $50,000, the grant comes with a team of urban planning experts who spent the better part of Monday walking the three distinct parts of Laconia while taking notes and lots of photographs.
Later they met at the Belknap Mill with some 50 residents, property owners and municipal officials to discuss the steps leading to a workshop tonight from 7 to 9 p.m. A presentation on "smart growth" ideas for the downtown, Lakeport and The Weirs is set for Wednesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in Room 200A at City Hall.
The EPA planners initially thought that Laconia was small and homogenous enough that only one set of zoning rewrites was necessary, but they quickly determined that was not the case.
Jeff Anderson, of the EPA’s Smart Growth program, told City Manager Eileen Cabanel that while it was "a little unusual" to have a municipality with separate sections that warranted their own zoning regulations, it wasn’t uncommon.
The challenge for Laconia, said Anderson in a presentation to the City Council that followed the brainstorming session at the Mill, was to come up with zoning regulations that allowed the downtown, Lakeport and The Weirs to "play on each area’s strength."
At the Mill, the topics were familiar ones to many in the audience: controlling urban sprawl while not becoming "more suburban;" improving traffic and circulation in the downtown; ensuring public access to the three lakes in the city; and promoting the river walk along the Winnipesaukee River in the downtown.
"You need a San Antonio in Laconia," a woman observed, referring to the Texas city’s integration of the San Antonio River into its downtown.
Laconia’s river walk is already in the works with the first section, which runs along the length of the former Allen-Rogers property on Water Street, recently put in as part of Chinburg Builders’ "Beacon Street West" residential and commercial development.
There were also calls for preserving Laconia’s rural atmosphere and concerns about the aging of the city’s population and how the needs of senior citizens have to be increasingly considered in municipal planning.
There was unanimity on the importance of protecting the quality of the city’s waters.
David Stamps, who served 10 years on the Laconia Planning Board and was a co-founder of the Laconia Main Street program which is working to revitalize the downtown while preserving its history, said the city needs to come up with incentives for property owners to not tear down many of the older homes and buildings in the municipality.
Later, Stamps, referencing a previous speaker who bemoaned the tremendous amount of development that has and is taking place along Weirs Boulevard and in The Weirs, suggested that now might be the time for Laconia to explore a state law that allows cities and towns to impose a one-year moratorium on granting building permits.
During an exercise where he told attendees to pretend they were public works chiefs, economic planners or developers, Rick Williams, who is an architect and urban designer with the EPA team, also received suggestions to improve the visual appearance of the Route 3 corridor between Laconia and Interstate 93 in Tilton.
Other ideas included creating a residents-only beach in The Weirs and to bury utility wires underground there; to repair or tear down blighted buildings; to protect the city’s "viewscapes" and for faster construction of a multi-use recreational trail in the city.
A call to renovate the Colonial Theatre in the downtown was met with applause and there were requests to add more parking in Lakeport; to improve the city’s storm water management system, and to promote "in-fill" development of existing sites.