Hanover — The Planning Board on Tuesday night voted, 4-1, to deny a permit for a controversial 70,000-square-foot athletic facility proposed by Dartmouth College and opposed by neighbors near South Park Street.
Board members described conflicting influences on their votes, and seven-year board veteran Iain Sim called the detailed and acrimonious site plan review process “the most difficult case that we’ve had to review” during his tenure.
Dartmouth had been seeking site plan approval for a roughly $17.5 million facility the school said it needs so that athletes may practice through the winter.
Residents to the east of the proposed facility, around Tyler Road, have organized against the project since this spring, expressing concern about its size and appearance, which they say would damage the character of their neighborhood. The neighbors opposed, including Planning Board Vice Chairwoman Kelly Dent, have repeatedly challenged the college’s impact studies and have hired a lawyer to lobby the board.
Planning Board members on Tuesday generally agreed that the project met the requirements of relevant Hanover site plan regulations, but were split over whether they could apply the town master plan in their decision.
Town plans contain guidelines for the development of land, public facilities and services, and generally are considered visions for the future of the community.
Some board members contended that the town plan could give them leeway to deny the application based on aesthetic considerations not addressed in the town ordinances.
Other board members agreed with Dartmouth that the master plan was more of a “vision” for the future, and could not be a factor in this decision.
Sim and another board member, Selectboard representative Nancy Carter, delivered lengthy explanations of the project’s successful compliance with town code and Dartmouth’s efforts to allay neighbors’ concerns — and then voted against giving the facility a permit.
Before she cast her vote, Carter said she “urged” Dartmouth to develop a plan to build “elsewhere within the vast expanses” of its athletic space.
Sim, before making his vote, reminded the audience that the board was bound to follow town regulations, which were enacted by the will of the residents.
“The entire ordinance, every word, has been approved by the citizens of this town,” Sim said. “... If you find that as a tool for this board it is inadequate, then there is a process open to citizens for amending the ordinance.”
Nevertheless, he voted no, citing concerns about the proposal’s potential effect on the neighborhood, as well as the difficulty of enforcing conditions that could mitigate noise and light disturbance.
As the “no” votes built up, heads began to turn in the audience of about 30.
Board member Michael Mayor said the building “looms as an affront to the adjacent neighborhood,” and voted no. After short remarks, Jon Criswell voted no, too.
Dent, having recused throughout the process, did not vote.
The sole vote to approve the facility’s permit came from Planning Board Chairwoman Judith Esmay.
“I find we made no provision in our zoning ordinance” for “aesthetic judgment,” Esmay said.
Board members technically took two votes on the facility: one to rule on the question of whether to approve the permit, and another on whether to deny it. Both were 4-1 against the proposal.
Afterward, Ellen Arnold, Dartmouth’s associate general counsel for campus services and director of real estate, said that an appeal was “always a possibility.”
Dartmouth still needs the services the facility would have provided, so college officials will have an internal discussion to determine their next steps, Arnold said.
She also mentioned that the college had made efforts to mitigate the proposed building’s effect on residents. Those included adding screening and changing the roof design so as to cast less of a shadow.
“We did as much as we could,” she said.
If Dartmouth chooses to fight the ruling, it has 30 days to file an appeal in Superior Court, town officials said after the meeting.
Although opposing neighbors said they had prepared for all outcomes on Tuesday night, more than a few smiles were tinged with surprise after the vote in Hanover Town Hall.
Julie Kim, who would have been one of the closest abutters, said board members had taken an “aspirational” step outside the letter of town ordinances, and looked beyond to what the character of the town should be. “That was the right decision,” she said. “This is outside the box, really, in terms of rules and regulations. That’s huge.”Rob Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 603-727-3242.