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Lebanon Board: No Eatery in Old School

Lebanon — The city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment nixed a proposed barbecue restaurant Monday night that would have occupied the former junior high school building on Bank Street.

The zoning board denied a variance sought by White River Junction developer Mike Davidson, who was planning to build a 30-seat restaurant on the lower level of the historic former junior high school. After the meeting, Davidson described himself as “crestfallen,” and wouldn’t rule out abandoning his plans for the building all together.

“I don’t know; it takes the wind out of my sails,” Davidson said when asked outside city hall Monday night what he planned to do next. “It isn’t what I envisioned, and I’m very emotional ... about my buildings and what I do with them. I’ve got to be excited about it — and it’s a lot less exciting.”

Davidson agreed to purchase the building for $851,000 last year, but the sale has not been finalized.

The propose 30-seat restaurant, which Davidson’s attorney Nicholas Burke said would have been occupied by Hartford staple Big Fatty’s BBQ, was scaled back from Davidson’s initial proposal for a 75-seat restaurant that would have included an outdoor patio space and a bar — two features that were absent from the latest plan.

The initial proposal was met with mixed feelings from zoning board members at a hearing about a month ago, when two members said they were leaning in favor of the applicant. To avoid a stalemate, a decision was postponed until Monday night.

But by the second hearing, both members who were in favor of the restaurant had reversed course in light of changes to the restaurant proposal, which had been scaled back to appease residents’ concerns about light, noise and traffic disturbances, as well as a desire to maintain the character of the neighborhood.

Zoning Board of Adjustment member Jennifer Mercer said the testimony in July better supported what she referred to as the “hardship factor,” which can be applied when the space being used on the property would be unsuitable for any other use. But Davidson’s redesign added apartment units to areas of the building he had previously argued would be unsuitable for residential use.

In the latest floor plans, about half of the restaurant’s original dining space was designated for apartments, even though Davidson and architect Dan Winny said last month those parts of the building were unfit to be converted into apartments due to building code issues.

Al Patterson, who recently joined the zoning board after losing his reelection bid for the School Board in March, said that he too was less in favor of the proposal Monday night than he was a month ago.

“Tonight I heard some things that concerned me,” Patterson said, referring to the introduction of residential space where it didn’t previously exist, as well as Davidson’s resistance to an idea he had proposed that would have utilized the space for personal storage instead.

Only two residents spoke at the public hearing, a husband and wife who live in a house across the street from the former junior high school. Kristin McGee ran through a litany of reasons why she didn’t support the project, though she also commended Davidson, who lives near Bank Street as well, for his sensitivity to the concerns of his neighbors.

“Second to the city owning this property, which is my preference, I think you’re the right guy,” McGee told Davidson during the hearing. “You live here, you seem to be invested in this area. You’ve done nice things in other places ... That said, you’re a businessman and I’m an abutter. And I have issues with aspects of the plan.”

McGee said she felt better about the scaled-back restaurant, which would have been allowed to stay open no later than 9 p.m. and would have not served hard liquor, according to Burke, but she still worried that approval would lead to a “slippery slope” of other restaurants in residential areas. McGee also mentioned the serving of alcohol more than once in voicing her concerns.

“I have no intentions of making an issue with the 40 units, and that’s pretty intense,” McGee said. “ ... I can’t go any further right now. I can’t bite the restaurant bullet right now.”

In the initial discussion of the project, which took place in early July, the zoning board approved 36 apartments, but the count increased to 40 in the most recent proposal. Although the variance was denied, the special exception for the apartments was modified to allow Davidson to convert a maximum of 40 apartments in the building.

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