Conway planners favors extending commercial moratorium

Time needed to update zoning ordinances before moratorium expires in April 2024
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The Tractor Supply Store now under construction off the North-South Road was approved before enactment of the one-year commercial moratorium by town voters last April. (Photo by Tom Eastman)

Concerned about the need to stop and “catch its breath,” the Conway Planning Board at its Aug. 24 meeting unanimously voted to begin drafting language to present another warrant article to voters to extend the one-year moratorium on large commercial projects and hotels come April 2024 town meeting.

The moratorium was approved by voters at April 2023 town meeting. It expires in April 2024.

The moratorium prohibits construction of yet-to-be approved commercial buildings 50,000 square feet or larger and hotels.

It was enacted to give the planning board time to update the town’s master plan that was last updated in 2003. That process is ongoing, with the SE Group, the consultants hired to work with the board to update the plan, to present some of their findings at a work session planned for Sept. 28.

At its Aug. 24 work session, the board acted on a motion by member Mark Hounsell to have new Town Planner Ryan O’Connor begin drafting the language for the warrant article.

O’Connor is to present his draft of the proposed warrant article to the planning board at its next work session Sept. 28. After receiving the board’s input, the plan would be to hold a public hearing at its regular board meeting Oct. 12.

Voting in favor of the motion were Hounsell along with board chair Ben Colbath, vice chair Ailie Byers, secretary Erik Corbett, selectmen’s representative Steve Porter and members Eliza Grant and Bill Barbin.

Porter has pushed for the extension, saying the town needs time to work on updating the zoning ordinances to tie in with the master plan’s provisions and goals once the update of that latter document is completed in January with public input.

On the town of Conway’s “Conway Forward!” webpage, a master plan is described as “a policy document that guides future land use and economic development decisions for a community. Conway’s Master Plan will cover a range of topics, including transportation, housing, energy, recreation, and zoning.”

The seven members of the planning board sit on that steering committee, along with seven at-large members of the public: Janine Bean; Debra Haynes; Cranmore GM/President Ben Wilcox; Jac Cuddy of the MWV Economic Council; Jason Gagnon, superintendent of the North Conway Water Precinct; Josh McAllister of HEB Engineers; Kate Richardson of Bergeron Technical Services; planning board alternates Ted Phillips and Steven Hartmann; and Barbara Lyons of the Conway School Board.

In a follow-up interview, Porter told the Sun that although some may lament that the Route 16 commercial strip is a lost cause, that Conway should have had the forethought to do better planning 20 years ago so that there would not be such a glut of hotels and commercial development, the political climate is right to tackle such measures.

“I say it’s better to do it now than not at all,” Porter said. “As I have said in the past, certain things have to line up. Town staff and the public have to buy into it and town leadership has to buy into it. We all get busy and tied up in our lives. Shame on me for not pursuing this sooner, but I can tell you the climate in this valley is a lot different than 30 years ago, Can you imagine standing up before developers in this town then and saying we are going to stop building for two years large developments and hotels? They would have hung us from John Cannell’s tree (the maple that was removed for the construction of the Viewpoint North Conway hotel).”

Concern over the approval of that latter project was one of the factors that spurred the public outcry that led to the planning board taking up the one-year moratorium after Deputy Town Manager Paul DegliAngeli first floated the idea at a selectmen’s meeting last year.

Other already approved projects now under construction that drew the public’s ire include the Hilton Garden Inn just south of the Christmas Loft, the Cambria Inn south of the former Pizza Hut and the Tractor Supply alongside the North-South Road.

Efforts to stop further curb cuts and development along the North-South Road were among other discussions at the planning board’s Aug. 24 session.

In a follow-up interview, Colbath said he has heard only from one developer who was critical of the moratorium and that was Ashok Patel of Jamsan Management of Lexington, Mass., who is involved with several hotel projects in North Conway, including the Home2Suites at the site of the former Fandangle’s restaurant; the Fox Ridge and the Yankee Clipper.

“He had wanted to build some workforce housing as part of redeveloping the Yankee Clipper but the moratorium stopped that,” said Colbath. “But the citizens of Conway have been supportive; they have been happy about it (that we proposed it and voters adopted it).”

He cited concerns raised at the Aug. 24 work session by Grant, concerning Conway’s percentage of impervious surfaces in commercial development near the Saco River. Grant cited the draft Saco-Swift Rivers Corridor Management Plan that was presented to the planning board at its Aug. 13 meeting. She followed up with FB Environmental Associates of South Portland, Maine, on Conway’s percentage and learned that it is 23% – when anything above 10% according to the study is considered of concern because it can impact water quality.

Mark Dindorf, selectmen’s chair in Hart’s Location, and chair of the Saco-Swift Rivers Advisory Committee, accompanied by Forrest Bell, consultant/owner of FB Environmental Associates, presented the report to the planning board and then followed up with the North Conway Water Precinct Aug. 30. They are to meet with Bartlett and Albany planning boards next.

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