Lebanon — A veteran Planning Board member who recently found himself under fire for making comments about the proposed Carter Country Club development was partially vindicated on Wednesday, when the City Council voted to reappoint him to the board.
Gregory Schwarz garnered unanimous support from councilors in his bid for another three-year term on the board.
Flanked by neighbors and friends, he argued Wednesday night that serving on the Planning Board doesn’t relinquish his rights to free speech. That’s especially true, Schwarz said, for projects such as the Carter Country Club development, where he has recused himself from an ongoing review. If it’s approved, the development would include 283 single-family homes on a 300-acre lot off of Slayton Hill Road and Buckingham Place, the road where Schwarz lives.
“I have been on the Planning Board for a number of years and I have always tried to be honest, ethical and impartial in all of my dealings,” Schwarz, who has been on the board for nine years, told the council.
Questions revolving around Schwarz’s actions both on and off the board were called into question earlier this month when the council took up his re-nomination, a process that normally proceeds without controversy.
During the April 5 meeting, former Mayor Georgia Tuttle took issue with a petition Schwarz signed along with more than 400 other Lebanon residents calling for a review of the impact development has on Lebanon, saying it was too critical of the city’s professional staff.
Tuttle also said Schwarz’s comments at a Feb. 8 Heritage Commission meeting, where he serves as a representative of the Planning Board, were inappropriate.
At that meeting, Schwarz abstained from a vote regarding modifications to City Hall and appeared to reference his experience with the Carter Country Club proposal and developer Doug Homan.
“The developer made a deal with someone or the city that the neighbors found out about it,” he said in an audio recording of the February meeting. “I brought it up as a citizen at the meeting and the Planning Board knew nothing about it. The Planning Office, I think, knew nothing about it and we were able to have the deal rescinded because he was supposed to go by the regulations at the time.”
On Wednesday, Schwarz defended both signing the petition and his accusations about a possible secret deal made between city officials and staffers.
“I signed (the petition) as a resident of Ward 2 with my address. I didn’t sign it as a member of the Planning Board,” he said. “It is my right as a citizen to sign such petitions without being afraid of repercussions.”
As to the deal Schwarz referenced in earlier meetings, he admitted he could have better phrased his concerns, but argued there’s evidence to back his claims.
“The deal in question took place between one or two city employees and the developer and it was dead set,” he said, adding that if residents hadn’t found out “I think it would certainly have been a done deal.”
Neighbors of the proposed development brought forward emails between them and city staffers that confirmed discussions took place between officials and Homan. But those discussions never went anywhere.
Interim City Manager Paula Maville said on Thursday that Homan approached public works officials last fall to reach a compromise on sewer and water flows for the development.
The city’s standards for those flows is more stringent than state regulations, she said, and Homan was hoping for relief from the city’s rules.
“It wasn’t felt like what was being requested was unreasonable,” Maville said.
But when public works officials brought forward their proposal to compromise with Homan, Maville said she shot it down.
“They were too late in the (review) process,” she said, adding the compromise fell apart in such a short time that it wasn’t presented to the Planning Board.
Neighbors relay a similar story, but argue the compromise was much closer to becoming reality before they intervened.
Melissa Billings, a Wellington Circle resident, said water rates were debated in open meetings for about a year before the Homan and the city tried to work out a compromise. Not only are Lebanon’s rules more stringent than state standards, she said, but they also are calculated in a different way.
The state sets water and sewer flows per person, while Lebanon calculates its standards based on the number of bedrooms in a home.
“So part of the problem is apples to oranges,” Billings said.
In an August meeting, city officials said they intended to meet with Homan to resolve flow issues, Billings said. And a month later, officials working on the development said they had reached a compromise, she said.
That’s when Billings said she went to talk to City Engineer Christina Hall, who told her about a new, less strict standard the city was offering to Homan.
So Billings, her husband and another neighbor went to speak with Public Works Director Michael Lavalla. “He confirmed to us that the developer would use this new lower standard,” she said.
Emails sent between Billings and Lavalla during that time confirm the city was considering offering Homan a different standard, but because the project was in review they decided against it.
At the City Council meeting Wednesday night, Mayor Sue Prentiss and Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara said they both reviewed minutes and audio recordings and had spoken with Schwarz.
“Nothing I have seen here indicates any nefarious behavior by city staff,” McNamara said. “I think some of the discussions may have been poorly timed. I think things were unduly complicated, but I don’t think there was anything particularly nefarious.”
City councilors disagreed on Schwarz’s characterization of the negotiations as a secret deal, but many said he was justified in bringing forward his concerns.
“I want to make sure that this council never again goes forward publicly to do something that would embarrass a citizen who was acting in his legal right as a citizen to make comments that he did,” City Councilor Sarah Welsch said.
Councilor Bruce Bronner later said he still had reservations about Schwarz’s comments and the perception it leaves, which brought him into conflict with Welsch.
“I need to ask Councilor Bronner some questions. Number one ...” Welsch began to ask before being interrupted by other councilors.
“No, no, no. He has put a statement on the table that calls Greg’s honesty into question,” Welsch said as Prentiss tried to restore decorum. “I just want to ask if he did his homework. That’s it. Did you listen to the tape? Did you read all the emails?”
Bronner responded, “I’m not a child to be scolded by you,” before Prentiss gaveled the meeting back to order.
Ultimately, the council decided to discuss how city staff negotiate with developers at a future meeting.
Tim Camerato can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.