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Planners air concerns about Conference Center proposal

April 27, 2010
ALTON — Representatives from the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center opted last week to postpone a continued public hearing on plans to re-build some of the cottages destroyed by last year's Easter Sunday fire amid concerns raised by town department heads and members of the planning board.

As project engineer Jim Spaulding and contractor Joseph Spain (whose firm, J.H. Spain, has been hired by Conference Center officials to oversee the re-building effort) came forward during the planning board's April 20 meeting for a continued hearing on their plans for Phase One (which would entail building 17 new single-occupant and four multi-occupant cottages in the area hit by the fire), board Chairman Tim Roy advised them to re-consider.

"You may want to continue this and proceed as a design review [rather than a site plan review]," Roy said, explaining that a "litany" of concerns had been raised with regard to the site plan.

Until those concerns have been addressed, he added, "I don't see us approving this."

Board member Tom Hoopes said the question at hand was whether or not the site plan application filed by Spain was complete.

Planning Assistant Stacy Ames explained that the board's chief concern was the absence of vegetative buffers, landscaping, lighting, and other items required under town regulations from the Conference Center's current site plan.

If the application was declared incomplete, she said, Spain and his colleagues would have the right to move the project forward as a design review, address the board's concerns, and continue the site plan review at a future meeting.

If the applicants were to proceed with the site plan review, and the board rejected the proposal outright, she said, they would then have to submit a new application and pay the associated fees.

"We'd like you to jump through all the hoops at once, rather than hold them up one at a time," Roy said, explaining that the board was trying to spare the Conference Center from the cost of submitting a new application.

With the developers agreeing to move forward with a design review, Spaulding said it was his understanding that there were two lingering issues with the current site plan — the first of which was the question of improved access to Beacon Avenue from Rand Hill Road.

Explaining that the developers did not feel Beacon Avenue would have an impact on the re-construction project, and that there is "no easy way to make it meet town requirements," Spaulding said there are currently no plans to change the grade or slope of the road in that area.

Board member Scott Williams (who also serves as the town's fire chief) said, however, that he wanted his department's trucks and other emergency vehicles to have access to Beacon Avenue in the event of another major emergency.

"We don't need to have a perfect world; we just need to get in there," he said. "We're all a little paranoid about that property now, after what happened a year ago Easter Sunday."

Spain assured board members that the developers were willing to work with them to alleviate concerns about access to Beacon Avenue.

"It's difficult to meet the town regulations to a 'T,' but if we can find a happy medium … " he said, trailing off.

Spaulding said the developer's plans to use porous pavement when re-constructing roads and parking areas had also become a cause for concern among some board members and town officials. He claimed, however, to have no idea why.

Hoopes said the board's main concern was where porous pavement would be used, and what would be underneath.

If the soil beneath it is not capable of absorbing run-off, Hoopes said, "it doesn't do any good."

Ames explained that run-off from the Conference Center grounds already causes problems, particularly along Rand Hill Road.

The planning department does not want to see an increase in the flow of run-off, she added.

Williams asked the developers how they planned to address a particularly bad drainage issue across from the Sample property on Rand Hill Road, where he said run-off from the Conference Center has a tendency to "puddle."

"That can't stay there," he said, adding that the revised site plan should include potential drainage improvements.

Suggesting that the town should also take an active role in addressing drainage issues along Rand Hill, Hoopes recommended that the developers schedule a joint meeting between their engineers and Road Agent Ken Roberts.

Following up on Hoopes' suggestion, Ames said that in an effort to clear up any lingering issues and move forward, the planning department would be willing to arrange a meeting between the developers and all of the town officials who have expressed concerns about the site plan.

Identifying parking as another "huge issue" with the current site plan, Roy advised the developers to seek a variance from the zoning board on town regulations that require a minimum of two spaces per dwelling unit (a requirement that cannot be met in the case of the Conference Center, given the limited amount of space available).

While the planning board understands the Conference Center's unique circumstances, Roy said, it does not have the authority to waive the parking requirements.

"We can't say 'OK, we're going to overlook the parking issue,'" he added.

With the developers asking whether grandfathering would relieve them from having to apply for a variance, Ames explained that the Conference Center lost its grandfathering when it changed the layout of what was in place before the fire.

Spain said that as he understood it, the developers had reached an agreement with the planning board that they would demonstrate their ability to meet the requirement of two spaces per unit during Phase One, then seek a variance from the zoning board before beginning Phase Two.

Stating that the board had subsequently learned that some parking spaces were being "double-counted," Roy said there were too many questions surrounding the parking issue to proceed without authorization from the zoning board.

"We need a variance," he said.

Asking the developers whether they had prepared a site plan for Phase Two, Ames suggested that they "may as well nip it in the bud" and seek approval from the zoning and planning boards for the entire project.

Hoopes agreed, suggesting that it would be to the developers' advantage to put the entire project forward and avoid getting hit with any "curve balls" that might come up in the future if they were to break it up into two phases.

The main reason the board is handling the situation so cautiously, he added, is that the Conference Center's site plan is the first of its kind the board has faced.

"This is a precedent-setting thing," he said. "That's the awkwardness of it for us."

The developers agreed to take Ames' advice, and schedule a meeting with the town's department heads before moving forward.

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

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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