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Lebanon Zoning Wins

Lebanon — A slew of seven zoning changes passed yesterday by healthy margins, five years after voters narrowly rejected a more sweeping package of amendments.

One of the amendments allows all structures in “residential-two” zones, not just existing homes, to be converted for new uses, such as offices, multi-family dwellings, private schools, libraries, museums, theaters and concert halls, subject to approval by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Mike Davidson, a Lebanon resident and developer whose business is based in White River Junction, said he was “thrilled” last night that the amendment passed. He hopes it will ease the transition he has planned for the former junior high school on Bank Street. Davidson agreed to buy the building for $851,000 from the Lebanon School District — a sale that was also endorsed by voters yesterday on the school ballot.

“I’ve been here forever, it’s a fun project,” said Davidson. “It’s something I look forward to on both a personal and professional level.”

Davidson said he envisions the upstairs classrooms becoming loft-style apartments and that the ground level would house a recreation center and a restaurant. Most importantly for many, he has pledged not to build on the property’s open fields.

Ward 3 voter Samantha Pause, who said she supported all the zoning amendments yesterday, emphasized that keeping the building in district hands was costing taxpayers money.

“It sounds like an ideal thing, and (Davidson) said he’d be willing to keep the fields as is, so it sounds like a win-win,” Pause said.

That was echoed by Joan Nierenberg, a former School Board member, who said that the district’s ownership of the building is “just money going down the drain right now.”

“I would have been really supportive if we could have kept it in the district to use it for the eventuality of needing another primary or elementary school in the future, but apparently it doesn’t meet the standards, so we couldn’t do it anyway,” she said. “So it’s time.”

Also at the polls yesterday, Stacey Aldrich said she opposed selling the property, because that site would make the most sense for the location of a new elementary school down the line. She said that also would allow the high school to expand into what is currently the Hanover Street School, an adjoining building.

“Keeping that property would be the best bet right now,” Aldrich said. “Our kids are kindergarten and first grade, and some day they’d be needing a bigger high school.”

Davidson said he has heard those arguments in his conversations around the city. He added that, because he has no plans to develop the fields, “If someone calls me in five or six years and wants to build an elementary school, I would be happy to talk to them.”

“You’d have to be a little creative and flexible, but I think you can have a win-win,” he said. “I would love to see an elementary school down there.”

Other amendments approved by voters yesterday include regulations that posed more potential for controversy, such as one that would allow so-called “mother-in-law apartments” in residential areas and new regulations that would protect the city’s wetlands and riverbanks.

Peter Brown, who said he voted against the last round of amendments in 2008, said this year’s amendments represented a “good direction that we’re going in.”

“It’s a good idea to have them separately presented as well,” he added.

City Councilor Nicole Cormen, who also serves on the Planning Board, said that breaking out the amendments for individual votes “played a huge role, and I wish we had done it last time, but better late than never.”

“It enables people to actually understand what’s being asked,” she said.

Cormen added that she was traveling between polling places yesterday wearing a sign that said, “Zoning amendment questions? Ask me,” and carrying copies of the zoning amendments with her.

Another amendment approved last night will allow property owners to build solar and wind facilities to be used for renewable energy production for residential purposes after getting approval from the Zoning Board, as long as the facilities fall under height and size restrictions.

Also approved was an amendment that will allow for the keeping of chickens in residential areas, and will regulate the size of chicken coops.

George Hanna, who was at the polls with his wife and two children yesterday, championed the chicken amendment.

“Being a young family, we’re pretty excited to have chickens in the backyard,” he said.

Jim Godfrey said the slate of zoning amendments “seemed perfectly reasonable to me.” He chuckled when mentioning the chicken amendment.

“No roosters, four hens,” he stressed.

Lebanon Planning and Zoning Director Andrew Gast-Bray described yesterday’s results as “great news.” He said he was happy to be “moving things forward, but not too fast.”

“I hope that we’ve got the right mix so that people can get comfortable with the new ideas that we’ll be implementing based on the master plan,” he said.

There were no contested races on the ballot, but there was a shuffling of seats with Assistant Mayor Scott Pauls stepping down this year.

City Councilor Steve Wood was elected to the at-large seat, while Heather Collier Vogel was elected to represent Ward 2. Karen Liot Hill was elected to represent Ward 3, and Suzanne Prentiss was elected to represent Ward 1.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213

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