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Zoning Measures Make Lebanon City Ballot 

Lebanon — The City Council last night unanimously approved seven zoning amendments for the March ballot that would in part allow for the construction of so-called mother-in-law apartments and establish localized restrictions on development for the city’s most-valued wetlands and riverbanks.

Several residents spoke in opposition last night to an amendment that would create a 100-foot restricted buffer zone around all wetlands deemed to be of “high” or “very high” value in order to provide flood storage for excess rainfall, protect water quality and secure wildlife habitats.

“It’s not even a small step in a direction, it is a leap, a quantum leap, from where we currently are,” said resident Wesley Leuthauser, who expressed concern that the environmental protections would burden landowners and unnecessarily duplicate existing state regulations.

A similar, 125-foot buffer would be applied to the city’s riverbanks, which include both the Connecticut and Mascoma rivers, as well as 13 brooks.

For more than two years, the city has worked with a wetlands scientist in developing the regulations, which would apply only to future construction, and not existing structures.

City councilors last night said that those who dispute the way the regulations were applied to their property could seek special exception from the city’s Zoning Board, but Leuthauser was among residents who said that would be too burdensome a process for many property owners.

He added that he is currently seeking a subdivision on his property that would conflict with the zoning amendment, should it pass the March ballot.

“Special exceptions aren’t always approved,” he said. “Something that we already have going on at our property could be null and void.”

City Councilor Steve Wood, who has previously served on both the planning and zoning boards, stressed the importance of local control in response to criticism that the amendment duplicates state regulations. He said even with state regulations, he had seen many high-value wetlands in Lebanon destroyed.

“If we continue to damage or destroy the remaining high-value wetlands in Lebanon, there won’t be anything left to examine,” he said.

City Councilor Bruce Bronner was not present at last night’s meeting, but he submitted a statement in opposition to the wetlands protection amendment, which was read to the Council by Mayor Georgia Tuttle.

Several councilors last night used the wetlands amendment as an example of balancing the rights of private property owners with the broader public good.

“The movement of water is not necessarily affiliated with one particular property owner, and the fact is that the benefits of wetlands ... apply to everyone,” said City Councilor Nicole Cormen.

Cormen has said in the past that the riverbank protections are especially important for Lebanon, which she describes as the only municipality she knows of in the state New Hampshire that uses a river for its public water supply.

An amendment allowing auxiliary apartments has been put forth as a way to provide affordable housing, but some concerned citizens in the last round of amendments raised questions about whether the apartments would increase population density and add stress to the infrastructure of residential neighborhoods.

Amelia Sereen, a resident who spoke in opposition to similar apartment regulations when they were offered a few years ago, said the fact that the Zoning Board would clear all apartment construction and permit public input under this year’s proposal was a satisfactory fix for most of her concerns. If approved, the apartments could be rented out as long as the property owner maintained his or her residence on the property.

Sereen, who has served on the Zoning Board in the past, did express frustration that the amendments were being put forth separately, rather than as a package.

“For some of these divisions, the only purpose for dividing it is to push them through,” she said. “It abdicates the obligation to plan, because planning requires looking at things as a whole.”

The slate of amendments includes one that would allow the Zoning Board to clear existing structures in single-family “Residential-Two” districts to be converted for new uses, such as offices, multi-family dwellings, private schools, libraries, museums, theaters, concert halls, and movie theaters.

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.

Those looking to raise chickens in Lebanon’s residential districts will be clucking about a new amendment that would allow up to four hens, but no roosters. The amendment also enforces height and size regulations for chicken coops.

Zoning amendments were last on the ballot in 2008, when a 131-page amendment that would effectively overhaul the existing zoning ordinance was struck down by a narrow margin.

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