Lebanon Planning Board Delays Approval of DHMC Project Citing Traffic Impact

Lebanon — The Planning Board last night chose to delay a pending approval for a proposed research facility on the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center campus until next month, expressing concerns over what has become one of the Upper Valley’s most pressing traffic challenges.

City planners have described the traffic congestion on the Route 120 corridor between Hanover and Lebanon as a problem that requires regional cooperation among the area’s municipalities and major employers in order for it to be solved. But Planning Board members said last night that, beyond a regional discussion, the city might need to enact a one-year moratorium halting development in the corridor.

“It’s going to take more than one meeting of the stakeholders to arrive to the solution of the corridor problems,” said board member Ken Morley. “As much as I dislike the idea of putting things on hold, I don’t know that we can do it any different way.”

He continued, “I would like to be able to approve the applications that are already sitting on our desk, but those are the ones that are going to be pushing the apple cart down the hill faster than it’s already been going.”

The new facility — a proposed 162,970-square-foot research building in the DHMC campus west of Route 120 — would add about 150 additional daily trips during the morning and afternoon peak commuting hours.

For the last two decades, development has flourished along the main artery linking Lebanon and Hanover, but now, officials in both communities say that growth is reaching its limit. Aside from traffic issues in the corridor, Lebanon and Hanover are considering issues such as wastewater infrastructure. Currently, Hanover receives and treats all of the wastewater from Lebanon users at DHMC, the Centerra complex and south toward the Hanover border.

Earlier this year, Lebanon and Hanover drafted an agreement between the two municipalities that identified a capacity for the amount of wastewater Hanover receives from Lebanon, and required Lebanon to develop an alternative plan should Hanover decide it can no longer accept the waste.

Nicole Cormen, the City Council representative to the Planning Board, said that while she supports a development moratorium, it would fail to address the numerous applications already being considered in the corridor.

“Even if we enacted a moratorium tomorrow, we are bound to fairly evaluate the (applications) that are in front of us,” she said.

Iain Sim, a member of the Hanover Planning Board, also spoke at the meeting, referring to a memo the Hanover Planning Board sent to its Lebanon counterpart in September concerning the proposed DHMC project.

The memo read, in part, “It seems imprudent to this Board to be approving projects such as the DHMC research building which will add to a failed road system without an implementable plan to address the current shortcomings in the Route 120 road function.”

Sim said that a traffic roundtable would be something he anticipated the Hanover board “would be eager to participate in.”

As part of its proposal for the additional facility, DHMC has offered to pay $114,000 to implement advanced video-based traffic signal timing at the Exit 18 interchange on Route 120.

While Planning Board members spoke in favor of that improvement, they also requested that DHMC consider tweaking the intersection of LaHaye Drive and Route 120 opposite the Centerra complex, where they say traffic has become an issue, with lines of cars waiting to make left-hand turns onto Route 120 toward Hanover.

DHMC Vice President of Facilities Management Gail Dahlstrom said she supported that additional improvement in theory, but that she would have to examine its fiscal impacts on the project before giving final word on whether the medical center would take it up.

Dahlstrom described the overall proposal for the new facility as “one of the most conservative projects that has come before the board in recent months along (Route) 120,” and asked that DHMC be allowed to “move forward with this application in parallel with broader conversations” about the regional traffic issues.

Lebanon Senior Planner David Brooks said his department would try to organize a broader traffic discussion before the next Planning Board meeting on Jan. 14. “If it looks like this project can or should move forward in parallel with those discussions, then the staff would be ready to prepare those conditions,” Brooks said. “If it looks like some of those discussions should progress a little further before this project should move ahead, then we will have already discussed” the prospect of the Planning Board rejecting the project.

Planning Board member Earl Jette also spoke in favor of the idea of an eventual moratorium on growth in the corridor.

“I’ve reached the point now where I don’t want to approve anything (on Route 120),” he said. “It’s not just the traffic we’re dealing with, it’s the sheer number of vehicles, and here we are with all these vehicles.”

Jette was referring to traffic data for the DHMC project, which now hinges solely on traffic impacts.

“You could be the leader in helping to get some of these businesses looking at things other than automotive travel,” said Jette.

A separate application put forth by DHMC planners requests adding 287 parking spaces to the medical campus in order to accommodate the new research facility.

Planning Board members Cormen, Jette, and Sue Painter, suggested that the medical center begin charging employees for parking in order to fund further traffic studies, but Dahlstrom said that the medical center was reluctant to do so, describing free parking as an employee benefit.

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


This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Wednesday, Dec. 12 edition of the Valley News:

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has offered to pay $114,000 for the implementation of advanced video-based traffic signal timing at the Exit 18 interchange as part of a proposal for a new research facility on its medical campus off Route 120 in Lebanon. An article in yesterday's Valley News inaccurately reported the cost of the improvement.