Developer backs out of Weirs Drive-In deal citing Native Indian artifacts at the siteBY JOHN KOZIOL
SUNDAY NEWS Correspondent
September 23. 2017 3:24PM
LACONIA - A buyer for the Weirs Beach Drive-In has backed out of the $2.5 million deal over the potential cost of dealing with the site's extensive Native American history.
Developer Al Mitchell met Monday with New Hampshire State Archeologist Richard Boisvert and representatives of Patricia Baldi, the drive-in's owner, before deciding not to buy the 12.62-acre parcel. Mitchell planned to build an event-center and condominium complex on the property.
Baldi downplayed the presence of artifacts Thursday. She said that if artifacts could put the kibosh on her sale, it could scuttle other potential developments in the Weirs.
Baldi said she is unhappy Mitchell walked away from the deal but said that she had several others interested in the property, located at 76 Endicott St. North, including one who previously offered the then-asking price, which was subsequently matched by Mitchell. The property is assessed by the City of Laconia for $745,000.
Mitchell said his takeaway from Monday's meeting with Boisvert was that “It's going to be a very large, expensive, very complex” matter to address the archaeological concerns.
Coupled with the asking price for the drive-in, “there were too many unknowns and I felt it was something I could not go through with,” said Mitchell. He said he would soon announce plans for a 9-acre tract he owns just above and northeast of the drive-in.
Mitchell said he had done his due diligence on the drive-in property and had commissioned a Phase 1 environmental report.
Boisvert said he met with Mitchell to explain the process of what happens if Native American artifacts are found in the course of developing the property.
Under the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966, the federal government requires that when a developer wants to build and requires a permit to do so from a federal agency, the agency must determine whether the development would affect historical resources.
By Boisvert's math, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources receives about 1,000 requests annually from federal agencies for reviews.
Researchers first ask and answer the question “is something there,” said Boisvert. “If it's important, is it going to be damaged and what should the agency do.”
In a majority of cases, the agency does nothing, and gives a green light to the federal agency for development, said Boisvert, but a “fair number” of the annual federal inquiries, about 70, are flagged as “significant” and get a more extensive review.
Only one or two ultimately are deemed to need mitigation - “passive protection” by simply not building on the area in question is a popular solution, Boisvert said - or a limited excavation.
It was not possible to estimate the cost of that excavation at the drive-in without knowing all the variables, said Boisvert, but the larger goal of the federal process is to move development projects along, albeit with sensitivity to the past.
To his knowledge, archaeology has “never stopped a project,” Boisvert said and noted that the Laconia recently buried utilities and did a major renovation of Lakeside Avenue, which is located across from the drive-in.
The historic drive-in was built in 1948 and owned by the Baldi family since 1974. It occupies grounds associated with a former Native American village known as Aquadoctan.
Believed to be the largest such village in New Hampshire, Aquadoctan was listed for that reason in 1975 on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Measuring one-kilometer square, the village, including the city beach across the street from the drive-in, is where Native Americans set up baskets, weirs, to catch fish going into the channel that connects Lake Winnipesaukee with Paugus Bay.
The village has some 9,600 years of documented human occupation, said Boisvert, and it has been the subject of archaeological digs in the 1930s, 70s and, most recently, the 90s when Boisvert said he found “remarkable things” on land near the drive-in.
Baldi said if there were any Native American artifacts at the drive-in “we would have found them.”
“It's kind of crazy,” she said, to suddenly think “there's a lot.”