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Amid housing crunch, Conway officials consider a pause on new hotel construction

The main street in North Conway, with shops on one side and the mountains in the distance
Casey McDermott
Currently, there is less than 1% vacancy rate in Conway. With no place to live, there is a lack of employees — and that has become an economic issue, as restaurants and retail have had to cut back hours of operation. Wages have also increased as incentives to lure and retain workers.

This story was originally produced by the Conway Daily Sun. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.

North Conway is a destination resort struggling with traffic, lack of workforce housing and maintaining its rural charm. The question has been floated: Is it time for a moratorium on commercial hotel construction?

As Conway — of which North Conway is part — prepares to hire a consultant to update the master plan, and with several hotel projects now under construction and others approved, that idea was floated recently by Selectman Steve Porter, a longtime past planning board chair who now serves as representative to the planning board.

At the selectmen’s Oct. 11 session, Town Engineer Paul Degli Angeli said he and Planning Director Jamel Torres are looking at having the impact of development studied in the new master update. He also noted several hotels with 450 rooms combined have been approved in town within the past two years.

“One of the things Jamel and I have written down for study is whether it is time here in Conway to place a moratorium on certain industries,” said DegliAngeli, citing lodging in particular.

That led Porter to raise the issue at the planning board’s work session Oct. 13.

“Having been raised here, I can honestly tell you from 1958 to 2022, I have not been impressed with how this town has grown,” said Porter. “It’s not the same valley it was and that kids thought it would be.

“It’s pretty hard as a parent having kids that have to move out of the valley because there’s no opportunity. As elected officials, it’s time for us to grab the stirrup and try and slow things down, and I know other towns such as Freeport (Maine) and other places out west have done the same because things have gotten out of control,” he added.

He said the issue of adding more hotels in particular but other businesses in general is tied to the lack of workforce housing in the community — although a few projects have been approved, such as Avesta Housing’s 156-unit River Turn rental project, now under construction in Conway.

“Once we get more housing in place, we can look at it differently,” said Porter at the Oct. 13 meeting’s work session, during which the topic came up when discussing updates to the zoning ordinance with town attorney Jason B. Dennis of Hastings Law Office of Fryeburg, Maine.

Dennis said he would study the legal ramifications of moratoriums and get back to the board.

In a follow-up interview, Porter said if enacted, a moratorium on new hotels could be in effect for two years.

“We are talking hotels because that is where we have seen the flurry in recent years, as we’ve approved the 114-room Cambria hotel project at the former Junge’s site now under construction; the 90-room Hilton Garden Inn at the former Packer’s Gallery site; and the three-story, 70-room Viewpoint North Conway at the Intervale Motel,” said Porter.

That follows the completion in August 2021 of the 80-room Home2Suites by Hilton in North Conway.

Porter also said although not located on Route 16, the 88-room Fairfield Inn and Suites now nearing completion at Cranmore Mountain Resort will undoubtedly affect traffic in town.

The moratorium he and DegliAngeli are contemplating would allow for the replacement of structures that were torn down or those that were damaged by fire, such as the Red Jacket Mountain View Resort.

“A place like the Red Jacket would be grandfathered,” said Porter.

In fact, according to the owners of the Red Jacket, plans are progressing for a reopening but with no date given.

Asked about the proposed moratorium, Josh McAllister of HEB Engineers said he does not necessarily see a temporary halt on commercial hotel construction leading to more residential units being built.

“I don’t see how you can tie housing to people wanting to do more hotel projects,” said McAllister, who with his firm represented the Viewpoint, the Cambria and the Cranmore hotel projects.

Ben Colbath, chair of the Conway Planning Board, said: “Other places like ski towns out west have ‘mixed use,’ where as a condition of their approval they might require, say, 12 housing rental units, and we could look into that.

“Had we had such an ordinance in place, for instance, we could have required rental units above the Settlers Streetside stores or for the Friendly’s site above the proposed new restaurant and retail building,” he added.

Currently, there is less than 1% vacancy rate in Conway. With no place to live, there is a lack of employees — and that has become an economic issue, as restaurants and retail have had to cut back hours of operation. Wages have also increased as incentives to lure and retain workers.

One reason for the lack of housing may be the explosion in short-term rentals, which took places that were previously rented to workers out of the long-term market. The town is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over its short-term rental ordinance.

But progress is being made on the housing front. In recent months, the planning board or the zoning board of adjustment have heard proposals concerning rental housing, but it may take time to see any concrete results.

The Bluebird Project has plans for four cottages at the Spruce Moose Lodge to be converted to workforce rentals and also plan to convert the historic 19th century Bunker building on Pine Street, both in North Conway, into eight workforce rental units. They also received approval to convert a single-family residence on West Main Street in Conway into five apartments.

Joy Tarbell and Ed Minyard recently completed renovating the former McGrath’s Tavern into their eight-unit Vale Apartments in North Conway.

The planning board voted to require full site-plan review for a 24-unit rental housing proposal at the site of the Echo Group in Conway.

Avesta Housing of Portland is building 30 units in building one of a planned and approved 156-unit, four-building complex in Conway to be known as the Saco River Turn project.

Settlers Green developer Robert Barsamian received a variance from the Conway Zoning Board of Adjustment in September for a 228-unit rental housing complex with 15 for- sale townhouses at the former North Conway Drive-In 16-acre site behind Northway Plaza in North Conway.

He now must appear before the Conway Planning Board for conditional approval.

In a survey that ran this week in the Conway Daily Sun, the question, “Should the town of Conway consider a cap on hotel rooms to address traffic congestion in town?” received 35 responses. Nearly all said there needs to be a cap.

Whether the moratorium gets enacted remains to be seen — along with whether the updating of the master plan and zoning would lead to more housing.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information

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