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Lebanon Jr. High Plan Splits Board

Lebanon — A local developer plan to revamp the former junior high school on Bank Street could be dashed by a zoning conflict.

White River Junction-based developer Mike Davidson wants to convert the downtown landmark — built around 1927 — into an apartment complex with 36 loft-style units and an attached restaurant. But the proposal ran into a major stumbling block in City Hall earlier as members of the city’s zoning board questioned whether having an eatery and bar there was appropriate. Some neighbors of the project, also spoke against the restaurant.

Thanks to the passage of a zoning amendment in March, the apartment plans were waved through in relatively short order, but city officials found themselves divided over whether to allow the 75-seat restaurant, which would include patio space and a bar.

Two members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment spoke in favor of the restaurant. Two others members said they were leaning against it. The divide on the zoning board, which has had trouble mustering a full roster in recent months, resulted in a temporary stalemate, and delayed the vote on the restaurant until Aug. 5.

City Councilor Carol Dustin, who identified herself as an abutter to the property, said she supported having the apartments there but worried that the restaurant would have a “profoundly negative effect” on the neighborhood. She cited a March 2011 municipal vote, when city residents rejected an amendment that would have re-zoned 14 acres of residential property near School Street to allow for the conversion of residential space into retail and restaurant space, subject to zoning board approval and with some size restrictions.

The amendment was opposed by the City Council, the Planning Board, and the Conservation Commission. It was rejected by voters 619-205, according to city records.

“I took that defeat to mean that the city’s residents do not want the city’s older neighborhoods to be commercialized,” Dustin said. “That was the lesson I took from that vote, and I would also like to point out that there are four restaurants and a deli within easy walking distance of the property, so I think another restaurant is redundant and would not be beneficial for the neighborhood.”

In making their case for the restaurant, Davidson and architect Dan Winny ran through a litany of arguments — technical and fiscal — contending that the eatery would fill otherwise unusable space and buoy the project financially.

Davidson said that the rooms on the lower floor of the building that would house the restaurant are located in the “bowels of the building,” in spaces that are “two-thirds subterranean” and do not meet the window requirements for apartments.

Winny added that the rooms were oddly shaped, which can be in a restaurant’s favor, “but for other types of assembly and performance, the space is too long and thin.”

Zoning Board Chair Jeffrey Halpin spoke against the restaurant, contending that the dining and residential uses were not complimentary, as Davidson had argued.

Halpin said that parking could be an issue at night, and echoed concerns raised by neighbors that late-night traffic at the restaurant might disturb Bank Street residents and create light pollution.

Davidson has lined up a tenant for the restaurant, but would not identify who it was other than to say it was an established Upper Valley restaurateur who runs a “family style” eatery.

“They’re not looking for live entertainment; they’re not looking for late hours,” said Davidson, who added that he would be open to restrictions on late-night hours at the restaurant.

Zoning Board of Adjustment Alternate Member Dan Nash, who runs a civil engineering and consulting firm, stepped down from the discussion of the Bank Street proposal prior to its hearing, citing a potential conflict because he has done work for the School Board in the past.

Al Patterson, a Hanover police officer who recently joined the zoning board after he lost reelection to the School Board in March, offered to step down if Davidson saw his involvement in the process as a conflict, but Davidson said he had no problem with Patterson presiding over the hearing.

Patterson, who spoke in favor of the restaurant, still expressed concern that a bar atmosphere could irritate some people in the neighborhood, but Davidson answered that the bar would be complimentary to the dining, not the other way around.

“I see it as a restaurant with a bar as opposed to a bar masquerading as a restaurant,” Davidson said.

The project also makes use of the former school’s gymnasium, but at this point, the facilities would only be available for residents of the apartment building. Davidson indicated that he is interested in opening the gym to the public in the future if a zoning measure makes it to the ballot in March and is approved by voters.

“Right now, we’re limiting it to folks who live there,” he said.

Lebanon voters in March 2012 voted down a proposal to demolish the old junior high school building, and about two months later, the school district accepted an offer by Davidson to purchase the building for $851,000. Members of the School Board had considered the possibility of building another school on the property, but felt that it would have required tearing the old junior high down.

In March, voters OK’d the sale of the school, along with the zoning amendment that allows for all structures in “residential-two” zones areas to be converted into apartments with zoning board approval.

That approval comes in the form of a “special exception,” but the restaurant requires a zoning variance, which is essentially the allowance of a prohibited use.

To get a variance, Davidson and Winny will need to convince the zoning board that it would be “required on constitutional grounds due to unnecessary hardship,” according to Zoning Director Carmela Hennessy.

Hennessy said that, more or less, that means Davidson needs “some compelling reason.

“Usually it starts out with what makes your particular lot different from surrounding properties that might distinguish it for the granting of a variance for a use that isn’t normally allowed,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s the environment around it. It could be the setting of the property in its environment or the property itself.”

Hennessy said that she is hoping to recruit Planning Board Chairman Larry LeClair, a zoning board alternate, to attend what is likely to be a decisive meeting of the zoning board on Aug. 5.

“I’m trying my best to have five members present at the meeting, because it just seemed like they were heading toward a stalemate,” Hennessy said.

Davidson told the zoning board that his motivation for building the loft-style apartments and restaurant is to “create the place that I would have loved to have 28 years ago” when he first moved to nearby Elm Street in July 1985 after graduating college.

“This the kind of place where you could have a little bit more life for the younger crowd,” he said.

Also present at the zoning meeting was Quinby McLellan, 26 years-old, who grew up in the Upper Valley and eventually went off to live in New York City. McLellan, who now lives on Bank Street, said she supported the entirety of the project, which she hoped would create more options for young people in the Upper Valley looking for a place to congregate.