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Lebanon Landlord, City Councilor Engage in Email Dispute

  • Upper Valley developer Mike Davidson in a 2015 photograph. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Erling Heistad in Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2018. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2018

Lebanon — City councilors expressed surprise and dismay over an angry email that contained a profanity sent by Upper Valley landlord Mike Davidson to City Councilor Erling Heistad but said it would not color their official dealings with the real estate developer.

Davidson, who owns and manages numerous apartment buildings in Lebanon and has undertaken prominent redevelopment projects in recent years, on Sunday sent Heistad an email with “F--- YOU Erling!” in the subject line. The email rebuked the city councilor over his comments in a Sunday Valley News story about Davidson’s property holdings.

Davidson, in a subsequent email to the Valley News, said he also is weighing legal action against Heistad for the comment he made in the newspaper.

In the Valley News story, Heistad challenged Davidson’s characterization of his real-estate business as a local operation, noting that Davidson lives out of the country much of the year. He also faulted Davidson for what he regarded as poor upkeep of some of his buildings.

“I wouldn’t want to say he provides workforce housing when you and I would not want to live there,” Heistad said.

In reaction, Davidson belittled Heistad’s contributions as a city councilor in an email that Davidson shared with 48 other people, including employees of Ledgeworks, his property management company, and people in municipal government and business people.

“What have you done today to materially improve Lebanon? I’m sorry I’m not local enough for you,” Davidson wrote in his email to Heistad.

Davidson then rebuked Heistad for endorsing a suggestion that Davidson formally promise the city not to build on the playing fields behind the former Lebanon Junior High School on Bank Street that Davidson converted into loft-style apartments in 2014. The proposal was floated during a City Council meeting last year during which the council was weighing the sale of the city’s former public works lot on Spencer Street to Davidson for a mixed-use development.

Although Davidson has said he intends to keep the playing fields open to the public, he has balked at formalizing that commitment.

Whoever acquires the Spencer Street lot would incur responsibility for finishing remediation work at the brownfield site, according to minutes of the meeting.

“I was close enough for you to use (your) official role with the City (of) Lebanon to try to extract my playing fields from us in exchange for redeveloping a City owned brown field. I’m sorely disappointed!” Davidson wrote to Heistad.

The city later declined to sell the lot to Davidson while it considers other options.

Davidson concluded: “PS I’ll go head to head with a mower or paint brush any day. Those are the tools upon which my life’s work is built.”

He then copied the email to three dozen recipients, including Lebanon city staff, elected officials, his attorney and city officials in Hartford, where he owns a number of properties.

Heistad, 78, said he was taken aback by the vitriol of Davidson’s email and initially was at a loss about how to respond.

“I’ve had lots of comments and most of them are ‘Thank you,’ or ‘Can you do this?’ ” said Heistad, a Lebanon native who has been on the City Council since 2010 and whose father, also named Erling Heistad, founded the Storrs Hill Ski Area in Lebanon and helped to build the playing fields behind the junior high. “But I’ve never had anything like this.”

Not sure how he should reply, Heistad reached out to Stephen Wood, owner of Poverty Lane Orchids & Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon.

Wood had served on the City Council for more than 12 years.

“I told Erling to respond civilly — or tell the guy to go to hell. I was really blown away by this. It was totally inappropriate for (Davidson) to act like that to some volunteer member of government,” Wood said.

Wood also said he respects some of the projects Davidson has undertaken, such as the junior high conversion and the “brilliant” redevelopment of the former Roy’s Service Station at the corner of Colburn Park into Lucky’s Coffee Garage, “but none of that justifies that kind of abusive behavior.”

Heistad emailed a 168-word reply Monday morning.

“I’ve lived in Lebanon my whole life, and have done plenty to materially improve it,” Heistad wrote, responding to Davidson’s challenge of what the councilor has done for the city.

“But a pissing match about that would be useless and unpleasant.”

Heistad went on to commend Davidson for his work in finding new uses for old buildings and “prevent the destruction of significant, fragile properties in our town, by buying and managing them.”

At the same time, Heistad reiterated his skepticism about Davidson’s position as a provider of local “workforce housing.”

“I’m happy to discuss any of your projects or plans, if you can be a bit more civil than you were in this email,” Heistad wrote, signing off with “Have a super day.”

In replying, Heistad copied Mulholland and Deputy City Manager Paula Maville, fellow City Council members Bruce Bronner, Clifton Below, Jim Winny, Karen Liot Hill, Karen Zook, Shane Smith, Sue Prentiss, former councilor Wood and the Valley News.

Asked for comment, Davidson responded in an email on Wednesday: “Litigation due to Mr. Heistad’s recent statements (is) being contemplated, so I cannot comment at this time. My email was clear and succinct.”

City officials said that while they were disturbed by the language and tone of the email, they nonetheless would not allow it to affect their dealings with the developer, who regularly has matters before the council and Planning Board.

“I have been working with Mike Davidson since the short period of time I became city manager and we have a vested interest in developers (who are) trying to address the housing crisis in the city,” said Mulholland, who became Lebanon’s city manager in January and whom Davidson copied in the email he sent to Heistad.

“I don’t see that changing at all. ... People have a right to their differences.”

Councilor Sue Prentiss, who also serves as mayor of Lebanon, said that Davidson, if he had an issue with a councilor’s comments, should have approached the council to discuss it before involving others.

“I’ve been on the council a long time and I don’t think I ever received an email or a copy of an email quite like that,” said Prentiss, who first was elected to the council in 2009.

But as to how it would bear on Davidson’s relations with the city, Prentiss said, “Things are not always perfect, you have to set that aside. I might not like (what Davidson wrote), but I’m going to do my job. ... Mr. Davidson is welcome to do business in the community.”

Below, who is a commercial property owner in Lebanon and has been on the City Council since 2015, said, “I think Mike overreacted in a way that wasn’t entirely appropriate.”

Below said that “both Erling and Mike are very invested in the contributions they’ve made in the community.

“It’s unfortunate this distracts from the good they’ve both been doing for many years.”

Newest council member Karen Zook, who previously served on the Planning Board and is now the council’s representative on the board, said she can separate Davidson’s email to a fellow councilor from his specific business before the council and board.

“I compartmentalize hard,” she said, adding “I kind of wish I hadn’t been copied on that email.”

Wood, the former Lebanon councilor, said, “I’m actually glad Erling responded the way he did” to Davidson. “I don’t think my response would have been as measured and respectful as Erling’s was. Mine would have been a little more recreational.”

Heistad said he expects the role of city councilor to attract criticism from members of the community, but that it’s difficult to have a productive outcome if the dialogue turns nasty.

“You get elected and try to do the best you can with the information you have,” Heistad said.

“I try to respond to people who have concerns and hopefully you can make good decisions ... It’s easy to hurt and create adverse situations. It’s much more difficult to create a collaborative situation where people can work together.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.