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Jim Kenyon: Problems Peak at Hillcrest Acres

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Who says taking on city hall is an exercise in futility? Residents of the Hillcrest Acres neighborhood in Lebanon showed up at a City Council meeting Wednesday night in hopes of persuading the powers that be that they had legitimate gripes.

They left, as one resident put it, with a “small victory.”

Granted, it’s only taken 40 years, and there’s no guarantee that victory will be lasting. But Hillcrest residents at least now have a glimmer of hope that the city will fix the potholes, which resemble moon craters, on their neighborhood’s streets.

Residents also came away more optimistic that city officials might finally help with their sewer problems. “The soil up there doesn’t support private septic systems,” Brendan Collins, a retired pilot who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s, informed councilors. “It’s all clay.”

Which begs the question why the city approved the subdivision in the first place. But that could be asked about the way much of Lebanon has been developed over the years, starting with the commercial hodgepodge on 12A.

I’m told about a dozen Hillcrest Acres homeowners have seen their original septic systems fail, requiring them to spend as much as $30,000 on replacements. But city officials have long copped a not-my-problem attitude.

Until I heard recently from a few residents, I wasn’t familiar with the neighborhood — or its longtime infrastructure deficiencies. Judging by the puzzled looks on city councilors’ faces, many of them weren’t, either.

Hillcrest Acres consists of roughly three dozen single-family homes situated just above the new Lebanon Middle School. Like a lot of housing developments in the Upper Valley, it was once farmland that got plowed under in the name of progress.

In 1964, Guenther Frankenstein, a civil engineer, and his wife, Ute, were the first to move in. Not far from downtown but away from busy roads, Hillcrest had instant appeal to couples with families to raise.

“It had a nice view, and the yard was big enough so we could have a garden,” said Frankenstein, who at age 88 still plays golf regularly and advises neighborhoods on septic problems.

Hillcrest Acres became one of Lebanon’s most sought-after addresses. Prominent business owners bought new homes with two-car garages on lots not quite an acre for $55,000 or so. (Today, homes sell in the $300,000 range, which is slightly above the city average.)

The primary developer was a wealthy South American who had moved to the Upper Valley while his wife attended Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, Collins explained to councilors. The developer didn’t stick around long after his wife finished school, he added.

Early on, residents approached city officials about hooking up to Lebanon’s municipal sewer line. “They told us it would be approximately 10 years before we got (city) sewer,” added Frankenstein.

It’s been much longer than 10 years, and Hillcrest residents are still waiting.

“I think we’re the forgotten neighborhood,” said Dennis Merrihew, who is among the residents who has spent thousands to get his septic system in order.

Residents were under the impression that it was only a matter of time before city officials got to them. They have municipal water.

But other projects received priority. The biggie was a federally mandated effort, still underway, to separate sewer and storm water in about 15 miles of Lebanon’s sewer system to the tune of nearly $70 million.

That doesn’t explain, however, why the neighborhood’s mile of paved streets has been allowed to go to pot(holes). Or maybe it does. Residents sense city officials don’t want to pour money into fixing their streets only to have to tear them up again to install sewer lines.

“While we were waiting for the sewer, the roads crumbled,” Collins said.

Broken pavement, potholes and standing puddles have turned the streets into an obstacle course. This summer, Melissa Robinson, a Realtor who has lived in Hillcrest Acres since 2003, finally said enough was enough. She circulated a petition among neighbors, requesting a meeting with city officials to address road conditions and develop a “coordinated plan for sewer that meets the needs of our community.” Robinson collected more than 40 signatures on her petition, which the council received Wednesday.

Collins, 72, reminded the nine-member council that with all the failing septic systems, it would behoove the city to do something sooner rather than later. As its name suggests, Hillcrest Acres was built on a steep incline. At the bottom of the hill, across from Dartmouth College Highway, is the Mascoma River. As is often said, stuff flows downhill.

“The septic systems at Hillcrest have failed at an alarming rate,” Collins told me via email, adding that he’s concerned that “raw run-off from the failed systems actually flows into the Mascoma River.”

Councilors were also given photographs of the neglected streets, which seemed to grab their attention. “I feel we’re sitting on a crisis that is just going to get worse,” said Councilor Sarah Welsch.

Public Works Director Mike Lavalla assured councilors he was onboard. With the help of a state highway grant, the city expects to start improvements on Hillcrest next year, he said. Work on sewer lines could begin in 2019.

If the city extends its sewer line into the neighborhood, residents must pony up, warned Councilor Karen Liot Hill.

I was pleasantly surprised that residents in attendance didn’t squawk. They don’t want to commit to anything until they get a price, but Robinson senses most would be willing to pay a special tax assessment over 10 years.

They’re not looking for a freebie, just a little attention.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.