Conway planners eye hotel moratorium

Board members explore town meeting warrant article to bar new construction for a year

With a 7-0 vote at their Nov. 17 work session, the Conway Planning Board took a big first step toward drafting a warrant article for town meeting that would propose a one-year moratorium on building hotels, motels and commercial establishments 50,000 square feet or bigger –  not including multi-family housing.

The unanimous vote was to direct Town Planning Director Jamel Torres and town attorney Jason B. Dennis of Hastings Law Firm of Fryeburg, Maine, to finalize a draft ordinance and warrant article and to present them to the board Dec. 8. If the board is comfortable with the draft ordinance, public hearings would follow, with the goal of finalizing a warrant article to be posted in January for April town meeting.

Board Chair Ben Colbath explained the measure is designed to slow growth to give town staff and the board time to update the town’s master plan.

The board added the exception for multifamily development after comments on the need for residential housing by Ailie Byers, vice chair, and members Eliza Grant and Erik Corbett.

Also, board member Mark Hounsell withdrew his request to apply the moratorium to all commercial development, including residential projects, such as the proposed subdivision behind T.J. Maxx at the site of the onetime North Conway Drive-In theater proposed by Settlers Green developer Rob Barsamian of OVP Management, Inc.

As the discussion progressed at the Nov. 17 meeting, Hounsell softened his position to align himself with fellow board members by possibly hampering any possible construction of multi-family residential units which are in short supply.

At the Nov. 17 work session, board members explained that the master plan update is expected to take more than a year and that the commercial moratorium would give time for town staff and the board to work with a consultant to update it instead of spending their time dealing with one new project after another.

The master plan selection committee, Torres reported at the meeting, had yet to finalize its contract with SE Group of Burlington, Vt., but that was expected to be done soon now that selectmen on Nov. 15 OK’d an additional $7,000 in American Recovery Act funds to the $100,000 already approved for that project.

During media questions at the end of the meeting, Corbett said a moratorium would put a temporary hold on large hotel construction but not on housing, giving developers time to plan and build projects to provide housing for residents who could potentially be employees at those short-staffed resorts and other businesses. “This would give time for housing to catch up,” said Corbett.

Colbath, Porter and Grant said they have not received any negative feedback about the proposal.

“To the contrary,” said Colbath. “Nobody’s saying, ‘Hey, why haven’t we built a high-rise in North Conway yet?’ People are asking how we can allow so much development so fast. So basically, we’re just trying to listen to the public and work on their behalf.”

Bill Barbin, who is a Realtor, during the meeting championed keeping a narrow focus for the moratorium on hotels, saying he is cautious about property rights.

Hounsell predicted that there will be “wide support for this” at town meeting.

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