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ABCCC officials seek input on re-building plans


January 05, 2010
ALTON — With a designer and builder finally in place following an extensive search, representatives from the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center sought input from the planning board recently on conceptual plans for replacing the 42 cottages gutted by last year's Easter Sunday fire.

Richard Smith, the Conference Center's interim director, appeared before the board on Dec. 15 (along with designer Jeff Greene of J.L. Greene Enterprises and builder Joe Spain from Concord-based J.H. Spain, Inc.) to provide an update on recent developments and address some of the concerns raised by town officials about the re-construction plans.

After surveying the owners of the lost cottages, Smith explained, Conference Center officials found that 17 wanted to re-build right away, while another 17 felt it would be best to wait and see what the Center came up with in terms of a design.

The owners of four cottages that were up for sale at the time of the fire chose to move on after collecting the insurance money, he said, adding that two cottage owners were uninsured, and did not think they would be able to come up with the funds to re-build.

An additional three people, he said, contacted the Center by phone asking to be added to list of potential new tenants, and another two have indicated that they would like to sell the cottages they currently own elsewhere on the grounds and move into a new one.

The center is not asking for an increase in density — only to maintain what was there, Smith said, adding that none of the cottage owners have expressed an interest in year-round residency.

Addressing concerns about parking, Smith explained that the center allows a maximum of one vehicle per cottage.

Additional vehicles, he said, must park in a common area.

Commenting that he could count on one hand the number of Conference Center residents who bring two vehicles with them during stays, he assured the board that the Center does not allow parking on the roadway, and strictly enforces that policy through covenants, or rules and procedures for tenants.

Center officials, he added, view serving the needs of their Christian followers as their primary responsibility, and are not there to promote the property as a vacation resort.

Explaining that he had met with members of the board on several occasions since the fire to discuss concerns about fire safety, Smith assured the full board that he wanted the center to re-build in a proper and safe way, given the limited funding available.

A requirement has been put in place that any new cottages have fire-retardant siding, he said, adding that Conference Center officials have also considered the idea of installing fire suppression equipment in the new buildings.

The goal is to keep people safe, he added, explaining that he did not want to face the prospect of someone being injured or killed on the center's grounds.

Stating that the Conference Center wanted to construct proper roadways around the new buildings, Smith said he did not see a problem with fixing the grading on Circle Drive (a concern board members had noted in the past).

Circle Drive, he said, will be converted into a one-way road, and will no longer come out onto Rand Hill Road.

Accordingly, he added, the main entrance will be moved down further.

The triangle at the top of Winni Avenue, another area of concern for the board, could easily be removed, he said.

Stressing that his intent as director was to ensure that the Conference Center re-builds in an appropriate and reasonable manner, and that its leaders work with together with the board, Smith said his only concern is that board members maintain an open dialogue with the center throughout the process in order to come up with the best solution for the campground, the town, and the community around the bay.

The Conference Center, he said, gave Spain several challenges, among them ensuring that any new structures were built to code and met fire safety requirements; that the new buildings would not be oversized, and that they retain the vintage character of their surroundings; and that the price be kept as low as possible.

Informing the board that the center had developed two sets of plans to present to the board as conceptual designs, Smith turned the presentation over to Greene.

Explaining that the Conference Center's goal was to re-build as many single units as possible, Greene said the first design (which he referred to as "Concept I") called for the construction of 41 units — 15 of them single units, and the rest duplexes.

After doing some preliminary grading on Circle Drive, Greene said he had found that the road is higher than the existing cabins in that area, meaning that three or four feet would have to be taken off the top of the road when it is brought down to the grade suggested by the fire department.

The triangle on Circle Drive that was recently mentioned by the fire department as a cause for concern due to maneuverability issues, he said, still has asphalt under it, and could easily be removed in order to allow traffic to flow through the area more smoothly.

Although town ordinances require two parking spaces per unit, Greene said, the Conference Center plans to restrict parking to one vehicle per unit in order to preserve the aesthetic appeal of the campground and avoid constructing parking lots in front of every building.

Through better utilization of the parking that was there to begin with, and adding in a few additional spaces, he said, the center would end up with six spaces over what is needed for new parking.

Board member Scott Williams asked whether the units located behind Pop's Clam Shell would be down over the hill or on top of it.

Greene replied that although he had placed the new units at the top of the hill for conceptual purposes, he and Conference Center officials had discussed the idea of moving them down closer to Route 11 and setting them into the hillside to soften the visual impact.

Asked by board member Bill Curtin whether the parking for those units would be located off Route 11, Greene explained that the parking would be placed elsewhere, with two spaces per unit, plus room for overflow.

Board member Tom Hoopes asked how many pine trees would be lost behind Pop's under Concept I.

Greene said he did not know yet, and that he planned to set out the following week to locate and map the trees that would have to be cut.

The number of trees, he said, would depend on which concept the board and the developers ultimately settled on, and how far down the hill the new units were placed.

Spain added that he intended to landscape the area after construction in order to make it more aesthetically pleasing.

Hoopes said that although he understood there would be landscaping, he felt that the view for homeowners on the eastern side of the bay should be taken into consideration.

Assuring Hoopes that the appearance of the new units was also important to the developers, Spain explained that the emphasis would be on terracing the units down properly in order to create an aesthetically pleasing view from the bay and from Route 11.

With so many options on the table, and so many individuals offering input on their designs, Greene said, the developers had yet to determine which trees would stay and which would have to be removed.

The plans, he added, might eventually entail re-planting different types of landscaping that would be more pleasing to the eye than what is there now.

Williams (who also serves as the town's fire chief) asked what type of "swing" the developers had included for fire apparatus in the circle area.

Greene explained that the 25-foot radii he had depicted on Concept I could be altered slightly if the conceptual design reached the engineering stage.

Moving forward to the second conceptual design (which he called "Concept J"), Greene explained that this option would preserve the "walk-in community" feel of what was there originally by eliminating the grassed-in circle in the center of the new buildings, adding a few more single units rather than duplexes, and placing the units in a double tier formation (staggering them so that each one would have a view between the others).

Circle Road and the other areas of concern would still be addressed under Circle J, he said, adding that the only major differences would be the elimination of the circle and a reduction in the number of units behind Pop's.

Williams said he preferred Concept I to Concept J from a fire protection standpoint, given the fact that units located on the second tier would be very difficult to access if another large-scale fire occurred.

Returning to the issue of density, Hoopes said he didn't feel it was realistic for the Conference Center to try to recover the same number of units it lost.

Commenting that the board has set precedents for density that it needs to consider when reviewing any plans for the Conference Center, Hoopes suggested that center officials look into something less densely packed than what was there originally.

Greene replied that the developers and center officials all understood that, but said that his job is to give his clients everything he has at the outset, and then drop a unit here and there or make minor corrections if problems come up.

Commenting that the issue with the original cottages was not only the density involved, but how tightly compacted they were, Greene said the new buildings would be spread out more, meeting the 20-foot rule and reducing the fire hazard.

Addressing Hoopes' comments about density, Greene noted that precedents can only be set on something that can be duplicated.

Since nothing else in Alton resembles the Conference Center, he said, a developer would be hard-pressed to duplicate the designs for the new buildings.

Recalling that many of the septic systems for the original cottages were designed with seasonal use in mind, Williams advised the developers that under new state standards, the new units would have to be considered year-round, whether the owners choose to use them that way or not, and the loading on the septic systems would have to be verified.

Greene said he had been working with a septic designer who recently took a preliminary look at the septic systems, and assured the developers that the existing system would be able to handle the new units.

Assuring the board that the developers and the Conference Center were willing to work together on the designs presented that evening, Greene said that ultimately, they were hoping to get a consensus from the board on whether or not they were heading in the right direction.

Stating his intent toward the trees on the Conference Center's grounds, Smith said he would prefer not to take any down at all, but added that there are times when a developer has no other option.

Assuring the board that he and other center officials did not want to take out trees or change the view from the bay in any way, Smith said he first came to the Conference Center 35 years ago, and had grown to love the setting over the years.

His appreciation for the look of the campground and the view it offers from the bay and Route 11, he said, is what drove him to try to do things right, not only in terms of what the center needs, but from the standpoint of aesthetics and reasonableness.

Stating that his basic intent is to preserve the image of the Conference Center, Smith said one of the main concerns facing the organization in recent years has been the desire of residents not to change its image or become "too modern."

With roughly 40,000 people a year attending retreats, he said, center officials have no plans to alter their image, and want to work within the restraints the planning board has placed on new development.

The issue at hand, he added, is one of finding common ground to meet on.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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