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Zoning Rule Changes Highlight City Ballot in Lebanon

The Lebanon Jr. High School Building on Bank Street is currently vacant and waiting for a zoning change before renovations begin. 
Valley News - Sarah Priestap

The Lebanon Jr. High School Building on Bank Street is currently vacant and waiting for a zoning change before renovations begin. Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Ballot voting will take place at Lebanon’s three polling locations on Tuesday, March 12, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Lebanon — In nearly three decades living in Lebanon, Mike Davidson has seen the region’s economy boom and its population grow — but he can’t help but feel that something is still missing.

“Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of cool in the Upper Valley,” said Davidson, a self-described “redeveloper” with plans to transform the former junior high school on Bank Street — a building that dates back to 1927 — into what he described as a sort of “community center.”

He envisions upstairs classrooms becoming loft-style apartments and the gym on the ground level would be a recreational center. Also downstairs, a restaurant would diversify the Valley’s food selection. In the summer, an ice cream window would offer refreshment to those using the outside recreational fields, which would be kept more or less as is.

Davidson, however, needs a zoning amendment on the ballot to pass on March 12 before he can turn those plans into a reality.

The amendment would allow 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. It is one of seven proposed zoning changes on the ballot.

Other amendments include 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.

Davidson already has left his stamp on White River Junction’s Tupelo Music Hall and Elixir Restaurant, which were also redevelopment projects. Davidson said finding new life for the city’s old junior high school would help fill a void as the region’s economy continues to grow and attract more young professionals from urban areas.

“Imagine these folks who come in from Palo Alto or Boston or New York City, or whatever, and all the sudden you’re on Elm Street and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s 9 o’clock and all the restaurants are closed,’ ” he said.

While many Lebanon apartments are in aging buildings with several small rooms and limited natural light, Davidson said the architecture of the former Bank Street school lends itself to loft-style apartments that are uncommon in the Upper Valley. He envisioned “live-work” spaces especially suited for artists who want a studio and an apartment, but might not be able to afford both.

“This is a place I would have liked to have lived in when I came out of college in 1985 and settled in Lebanon,” he said. “If I was a young professional person, this is what I would have wanted.”

Davidson said his vision for Lebanon dovetails with the city’s Master Plan and the Planning Department’s push toward “mixed-use” development — where commercial and residential buildings occupy the same spaces — as well as “infilling,” which concentrates new construction in already-developed areas.

Planning and Zoning Director Andrew Gast-Bray said that “infilling” balances the benefits of utilizing parts of the city that have already been developed while at the same time recognizing that people may have privacy concerns.

“We get the best bang for our buck when we use (those already-developed spaces) as fully as we can and still achieve the quality of life that we want,” he said.

As for mixed-use development, Gast-Bray said that while people might not know the term, visual preference surveys and other planning analyses he has been involved with have consistently revealed that those types of developments — akin to having an apartment above a mom-and-pop store e_SEmD are preferred to others.

“So much of the heritage of American society is to have small-town America with mixed-use centers, and it resonated very much with all the residents,” he said.

The mother-in-law apartments, more formally known as “accessory dwelling units,” would be allowed under another amendment on the ballot, which would clear the way for the construction of auxiliary apartments in residential areas, as long as the property owner would remain in one of the two homes.

A similar proposal was featured in the last round of zoning amendments, part of a 131-page ordinance that was narrowly rejected by voters in 2008. City officials describe the apartments as a way to provide more affordable housing, but some residents expressed concern that they would increase population density in residential areas faster than the surrounding infrastructure could handle.

This time around, if approved, any proposed mother-in-law apartments would still need to be green-lighted by the city’s Zoning Board, which would offer nearby residents the chance to weigh in on the process.

The fact that the amendments were broken up into separate articles, rather than a sweeping package, illustrates another change in the city’s approach to changing the zoning ordinance.

But even though planning officials describe their approach this year as “conservative,” some of the proposed zoning changes have raised the hackles of Lebanon residents whose properties either include or border wetlands and riverbanks that fall under the city’s proposed regulations.

At a City Council meeting in January, residents expressed concern that the amendments would burden landowners and unnecessarily duplicate existing state regulations.

One amendment would create a 100-foot restricted buffer zone for development around all wetlands deemed to be of “high” or “very high” value. A similar amendment would create a 125-foot buffer for the city’s riverbanks, which include the Connecticut and Mascoma rivers, as well as 13 brooks.

Gast-Bray emphasized that the Planning Department was “conservative” in its approach to the regulations, which include special exceptions. He also stressed that, aside from environmental protection, the regulations would be crucial in protecting the city’s drinking water and providing “flood storage” that would help reduce damage from storm surges.

Additionally, he said that structures within the buffer zone are at a high risk of incurring flood damage.

“We’re saving people, maybe despite themselves sometimes,” said Gast-Bray. “That’s important for people to recognize. We’re either protecting drinking water or protecting them from flooding.”

Another amendment would 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.

In less complex matters, an amendment on the ballot would allow for the keeping of chickens in residential areas and would regulate the size of chicken coops.

There are no contested municipal elections on the ballot .

Three two-year terms on the City Council are set to expire this year, according to the City Clerk’s Office. Assistant Mayor Scott Pauls, a Ward 3 councilor, has not filed to run again.

Suzanne Prentis, a Ward 1 councilor, has filed to run again for her seat.

Steve Wood, a Ward 2 councilor, has filed to run for the at-large seat held by Karen Liot Hill.

Liot Hill, meanwhile, has filed to run for the seat currently held by Pauls.

Heather Collier Vogel, who has lived in Lebanon for 28 years, has filed to run for the Ward 2 seat that would be vacated by Wood. She said she heard about the vacancy, and now that her two children are out on their own, she felt she had some spare time to “give back to the community.”

“I’ve certainly liked where the city is going and would like to be a part of helping with its future, and I’m rather intrigued with their principles for the sustainable community,” said Vogel.

Vogel said she was excited about Lebanon’s economic potential, but “along with that comes the fear of too much growth and too much building.”

“So I guess it’s just sort of the fine line of what you can do to bring in what will help us with economic situations,” she said, “but not destroy the city of Lebanon’s sort of feel.”

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

CORRECTION

This article and headline has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Saturday, March 2 edition of the Valley News.

As a city, Lebanon no longer has a Town Meeting form of municipal government, and Lebanon residents will act on proposed zoning amendments via a ballot vote on Tuesday, March 12. A story in headline in yesterday's Valley News incorrectly described the process.