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City Council To Weigh In On Zoning

If Approved, Proposals Would Go on Lebanon Ballot in March

Lebanon — A slate of proposed zoning amendments that the City Council will consider this week for the March ballot covers new and familiar territory, including an item accessory apartments in residential neighborhoods, a topic that proved controversial five years ago when voters rejected a similar measure.

Officials at the city’s Planning Department have described the eight amendments to be voted on by the council at a public hearing on Wednesday as a more “conservative” alternative to what was an unsuccessful approach in the last round of zoning changes that landed on the ballot in 2008.

Voters then rejected a 131-page zoning ordinance, which some city residents termed as “pro-development,” by a narrow margin.

Andrew Gast-Bray, who has headed the city’s Planning Department for the past year, said this year’s zoning changes represented a “small turn” toward more flexible zoning that he said would encourage “mixed-use” development, where residential and commercial spaces occupy the same spaces.

“I think we heard from the voters that (the 2008 voting ordinance) was too far-reaching and too much at once, so we decided to take more time, and be more methodical,” he said.

Aside from being broken into mutliple articles for voters — as opposed to as a sweeping package — some of the proposals this year would hinge on a special exception by the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which means that residents would be notified and have an opportunity to weigh in on changes affecting their immediate neighborhood.

Nicole Cormen, who serves as the City Council representative to the Planning Board, said that difference was key for proposals such as “accessory dwelling units,” which would give property owners in single-family neighborhoods the ability to build accessory apartments that could be used for rental purposes.

Cormen said that the accessory apartments could be a good way to provide affordable housing, but residents expressed concern in the 2008 round of zoning changes that such apartments would increase population density at a quicker pace than the city’s infrastructure could support. The chance for public input, Cormen said, should help to alleviate those concerns.

Zoning Administrator Carmela Hennessy described the accessory apartments as a chance for families to offer affordable housing for extended family members, but the ordinance also allows for rental of such a unit if the property owner maintains his or her residence in one of the buildings on the property. The accessory apartments would also be subject to size restrictions.

A separate proposal that would be green-lighted via special exception from the zoning board allows for the conversion of all existing buildings in single-family “Residential-Two” zoning districts into new uses such as offices, multi-family dwellings, private education, libraries, museums, theaters, concert halls, and movie theaters.

As one example, the amendment would clear the way for Mike Davidson — a commercial developer who has agreed to purchase the former Lebanon Junior High School, pending voter approval in March — to convert the building, which dates back to 1927, into loft-style apartments, commercial space and a multi-purpose recreational center.

Another amendment would strengthen restrictions on development near the city’s wetlands and implement new protections along that same vein for riverbanks in Lebanon.

Cormen described the wetland and riverbank protections as “long overdue” measures to protect valuable natural resources, wildlife habitat, and so-called “flood storage” for excess rainfall or precipitation.

If voters approve the provision, the ordinance would require a 100-foot buffer zone between all wetlands deemed to be of “high” or “very high” value. City officials and wetlands scientist Rick Van De Poll have said that the protections provide an additional layer of protection to existing state laws regulating the development of property on or bordering a wetland.

In addition, a 125-foot buffer zone would be enforced on the city’s riverbanks, which include both the Connecticut and Mascoma Rivers, as well as 13 brooks.

While some have said the protections don’t go far enough — for instance, all existing structures are permitted under the ordinance, which only applies to new construction — Cormen said it was important not to let the “perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“Being able to pave up to the edge of any wetland, even a really valuable one — that needed to be addressed,” she said.

Another amendment focused on environmental sustainability would allow via special exception the ability for property owners to build solar and wind facilities to be used for renewable energy production in residential districts, as long as the facilities fall within height and size restrictions.

Cormen said she was originally concerned over the proposal out of a fear it would open the door to commercial or large-scale wind-generation, but her fears were calmed when she learned that the amendment only pertains to residential uses.

Gast-Bray said the amendment was designed to get the city out of the way of already-motivated people looking to build renewable energy facilities. The state of current wind and solar technology, he said, made incentivizing the use of technologies more difficult.

The proposals feature good news for chicken farmers-to-be who live in Lebanon’s residential districts, which are prohibited under current zoning from keeping hens, unlike the city’s rural districts.

The zoning amendment on this year’s ballot would allow for up to four hens, and no roosters. It also imposes restrictions on where chicken coops may be built and how big they are allowed to be.

Cormen said that in her estimation, the Planning Department in this round of proposed zoning changes “properly decided to go after things that were in most need of attention,” especially when it came to wetlands and riverbank protections.

She stressed that none of the proposals change the zoning map, which was last updated in the early 1990s. The “bigger picture stuff,” would likely come in the next round of proposals to amend the zoning ordinance, she said.

Gast-Bray described the slate of smaller amendments as an attempt by the Planning Department to “buy good will” from city residents as well as to demonstrate that their last message, written on ballots across the city in 2008, was received.

“The one thing that I really hope I’m doing is that I hope I’m hearing Lebanon well,” he said.

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