Board Approves Extension for W. Lebanon Project

West Lebanon — Developer David Clem will have more time to negotiate with state officials over improvements to Route 10.

The dispute over whether to widen the road has become a major stumbling block for the mixed-use development Clem has proposed along the Connecticut River.

The Planning Board on Monday night unanimously approved Clem’s request for a two-year extension to finish preliminary work on River Park, a 38-acre project approved by the board in 2011. His original deadline to complete preliminary work and obtain building permits was set to expire last month.

Clem said that he has been waiting to complete other work — such as solidifying the layout of the internal roads and finalizing plans for sewer work to nearby Crafts Avenue — while he tries to come to terms with the state Department of Transportation on Route 10.

“This is an approved project,” said Planning Board member Nicole Cormen shortly before the board OK’d the extension. “We want it to be the best it can be.”

River Park is a mixed-use development that would include 840,000 square feet of laboratory, office and retail space, as well as single and multi-family homes along with two parking garages totaling 500,000 square feet.

Clem has been negotiating with the state for nearly a year to get permission for the development’s driveways to connect with Route 10.

DOT officials have told Clem to widen the road to three lanes along the length of the project, from just south of Chandler Street to about a quarter mile north of Allard’s Furniture.

Clem, who would be responsible for the cost, opposes the widening proposal, which DOT officials say is needed to deal with the projected traffic increases associated with the development.

According to a traffic study, River Park would add about 670 vehicles to Route 10 during the afternoon commute, a more than 50 percent increase.

Clem has said the widening — which would eliminate parking spaces at two business and cut into the front yards of three private homes — would not improve traffic flow enough to justify the burden on the affected property owners.

Cormen said that city officials should be looped into the talks between Clem and DOT officials to make sure the layout of the development and the road is satisfactory for all parties.

“I’m kind of concerned about leaving it to what DOT does or doesn’t decide to do without further input,” she said. “The number one thing though is this question of the clock ticking, so if the clock is ticking and we need more time, I think the board should grant the extension.”

The city likely has no formal role in the process, as it concerns a state highway, but Clem argued that as one of the intersections is within the city’s jurisdiction, it could weigh in on the process.

DOT District Two Engineer Alan Hanscom said before the meeting on Monday that the right-of-way for the state highway extends 33-feet from the center of the road in each direction, which is about 21 feet from the edge of the pavement. Hanscom said preliminary estimates for the widening suggest no additional right-of-way would be needed for the project.

Clem said that after the project was approved, the DOT requested that he and a consultant verify the width of the right-of-way, which they did, at the cost of $25,000. He added that the original plan only called for widening to three lanes at the two intersections providing entrances and exits to the development, and that the Planning Board had signed off on that proposal, which would have provided for right-hand turn lanes at the intersections.

“(The DOT has) now mandated as a condition that we go with the three lane approach,” Clem said. “That is significantly at odds with what the Planning Board approved and what we support. More importantly, the three lane option extends beyond their jurisdiction into the city limit jurisdiction, so that it results in more impacts to the abutters.”

Clem went on to say that in his experience with traffic engineers, improvements are sought for the sake of making improvements without much thought given to the consequences.

“When they have room to make it wider, they want to make it wider,” Clem said. “In this particular case I don’t think it’s a good policy because it’s only going to increase speed.”

Planning Board Vice Chairman Tim McNamra said he was happy to hear Clem anticipates meeting with DOT officials on the ground in the near future to discuss the plan for the road, as the differences on a plan for a project of River Park’s size can be subtle on paper but clearer in person.

“Once they’re on the ground, (DOT officials) can see a stake here and a stake here and it can make a huge difference to them,” McNamara said.

Planning Board Member Ken Morley, who recused himself from the discussion because he lives nearby, spoke in the public comment section.

“If DOT has a comprehensive plan for Route 10, that’s one thing,” Morley said. “But for them to do a little spot change for the road in this area would probably not be very helpful and could increase the speeding.”

Planning and Zoning Director Andrew Gast-Bray said his department has reached out to the DOT and plans to discuss how to best address concerns of neighbors to the project soon.

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