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Lebanon Approves Downtown Traffic Changes

Lebanon — The City Council last night gave the green light to a package of traffic calming measures for the busy roads around Colburn Park and cleared the way for the Planning Board to tweak the fees collected on new residential development.

Although some city councilors remarked of being inundated with questions and other feedback regarding the restriping of the roads around Colburn Park last year and again with this year’s round of proposals, last night’s meeting drew only a handful of concerned residents. Only two residents spoke to the council last night, and neither one voiced strong condemnation of any of the proposals.

Reverse-angle parking tops the list as the most noteworthy of the traffic calming recommendations, which originated in the Pedestrian and Bicyclist Advisory Committee. The parking method requires the motorist to drive beyond the parking spot and then back up into the space.

The traffic calming measures also include directional information for Routes 4 and 120 to be painted on the pavement, additional parking spaces on South Park and East Park streets, crosswalk reorientation, clearer bike lane markings, “painting out” the corners around Colburn Park to discourage corner-cutting, and the relocation of the School Street stop sign.

The Council examined the proposals for more than an hour before voting to approve them 8-1, with City Councilor Suzanne Prentiss the lone dissenting voice.

Prentiss said that while she was in favor of most of the proposals, she worried that a lack of signs clearly directing traffic, combined with the newly configured road markings, would do more harm than good. While acknowledging that the pedestrian committee was facing budgetary constraints in drafting the plan, Prentiss cautioned the city against moving forward on the proposals without having the ability to install numerous street signs.

“If we’re going to put these markings down, we have to appropriately sign this at the same time,” said Prentiss.

While Prentiss did not dismiss the potential benefits of reverse-angle parking, she said that the city should have done more research into the reasons why the parking method has not worked in nearby regional communities such as Plattsburgh, N.Y. and Brunswick, Maine.

“Change is tough for anybody, and I can walk my way and bring others through change,” Prentiss said. “But I look at this almost like a cost-benefit analysis ... We’ve been told the reasons why we should do this, I think we really have to know the places that it didn’t work and why.”

City planners have rallied around reverse-angle parking as a way to increase the visibility of pedestrians and bicyclists for drivers pulling out of a parking space, as the front of their vehicle would be facing pedestrian and cyclist activity.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill described the measures as “modest” but said they represent a concerted effort for the city to stand up for its downtown area. Liot Hill said that while Lebanon doesn’t have a prototypical “Main Street” like other Upper Valley communities, the restriping of the roads around Colburn Park would let motorists from out-of-town know that they were driving through a busy confluence of roads.

“I think the main message that I see we’re trying to communicate here is that, bottom line, this is our downtown,” said Liot Hill. “Respect our downtown.”

City Councilor Bruce Bronner also questioned the reverse-angle parking, voicing concern in particular about large trucks backing into spaces and sticking out far into the sidewalk behind the road. Assistant Mayor Steve Wood, too, said he had reservations at first about the parking method, specifically the act of backing a vehicle into the line of traffic, but he said he has warmed up to the idea, which he considers less dangerous than backing out of a traditional parking space into traffic.

“The more I look at this, the more I applaud it,” Wood said.

The Council also amended the language of the city’s zoning ordinance in light of newly-allowed accessory apartments approved by voters on the city ballot in March. The amendment to the ordinance will allow changes to so-called “impact fees,” which are collected at the cost of more than $2 per square-foot by the city whenever new residences are constructed or converted from existing structures.

Now that the council has approved the amendment, the Planning Board will be able to set a new fee schedule that will reduce the number of categories for residences in order to streamline the process of collecting impact fees and provide a method for collecting charges on accessory apartments.

The problem of not being able to categorize an accessory apartment has not yet arisen , Zoning Director Carmela Hennessy said earlier this week.

Accessory apartments are allowed to be constructed or converted from existing homes in residential areas after receiving approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, as long as the property owner would remain in one of the two homes.

The city has had impact fees in place since September 2010 as a way to collect money from residential development. The charges are determined by the square footage of a given residence and are used to pay for school, recreation and police department facilities.

Smaller, non-residential impact fees are also in place, but those only contribute to police department facilities, although the Planning Department is proposing to expand those fees to cover recreational facilities in light of the development of the Mascoma Greenway, a four-mile recreational path that will connect downtown to West Lebanon.

Since the impact fees were adopted in the fall of 2010, the city has collected $146,500 in both residential and non-residential charges. The city has assessed $274,000 in impact fees, but it has not yet collected all of the fees, which are required prior to the issuance of a certificate of occupancy.

Of the $146,500 collected so far, $78,000 has gone to the school district. Hennessy said one of the main reasons impact fees are collected is to offset the stress new students would add to the district with new residential development.

The impact fees for residences are currently broken out into five categories of housing, but city officials are hoping to streamline the process later this year by reducing those categories into two: “single family detached” and all other residential uses. Hennessy said that the accessory apartments would fall under the category of all other residential uses.

The rate for single family detached residences is $2.44 per square-foot, which amounts to nearly $5,000 for a 2,000-square-foot “living area.” The city excludes garages, basements, and other non-heated spaces in its definition of a living area.

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

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Monday, May 20, 2013

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