In the Weeds of Regulation: Permit Process Irks Developer in West Lebanon
Unkempt grass grows behind a temporary fence at the former West Lebanon Library building, due to a dispute between developer David Clem and the city of Lebanon. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Developer David Clem, of Hanover, in a Dec. 2009 photograph. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
West Lebanon — The unruly lawn in front of the historic former West Lebanon Library building isn’t a result of laziness; it’s a developer’s deliberate protest against the city’s building permit review process.
Lyme Properties managing director and founder David Clem, the developer behind a proposed renovation of the West Lebanon Library, has allowed the historic building’s lawn fronting South Main Street to grow to an average of about 32 inches tall in recent weeks, citing dissatisfaction with the city’s permitting timeline.
“I have made the decision to close down the site and stop mowing the grass as my citizen protest for a process that is unfriendly to the taxpayer, unnecessary, and burdensome for a community that allegedly wants economic revitalization, increased tax revenues, and historic preservation,” Clem wrote in an email Monday. “When I am granted a building permit, I will cut the grass, but not before. The city does not seem to care.”
At issue is a building code that regulates fire protection equipment within the structure, according to Lebanon Director of Planning and Zoning Andrew Gast-Bray, who added that the code requires either a sprinkler system or the installation of material that would provide “two-hour fire separation” between the business and residential spaces in the former library to buy time for inhabitants in the event of an evacuation.
Additionally, Gast-Bray said the building code is a state regulation and city officials are merely “holding the state line” in their dealings with Clem, who is also the developer behind River Park — the commercial and residential complex that will feature a mix of office, laboratory and retail space down the street from the old library in West Lebanon.
“This is not like we have done nothing,” Gast-Bray said. “We’ve been in communication with the state and we don’t have any wiggle room here.”
Clem explained his act of protest in an email response to an inquiry by Judy Fothergill, who identified herself as a past chairwoman of the Beautification Committee for the West Lebanon Civic Association and a “longtime resident of this special part of town.” Fothergill forwarded the correspondence between Clem and herself to City Manager Greg Lewis. After learning of the exchange, the Valley News obtained the emails via a public records request to the city manager’s office.
Fothergill declined to comment on the email, in which she expressed disappointment over what she described as “an eyesore,” and asked Clem if the lack of lawn care was an oversight.
Clem responded in an email that cited examples of good will, such as a $50,000 donation Lyme Properties made to the Kilton Public Library and described himself as a “good neighbor.” He also chafed at the city’s regulatory bodies, pointing out that the permitting process for River Park took nearly four years, during which he maintained 38 acres of fields on the property.
As for the library project, Clem said he has waited eight months for the city to grant a building permit.
“I have spent considerable sums in architectural and engineering fees,” he said.
Although Clem indicated in his email that he was waiting on the city, Gast-Bray said that Clem and his architect nonetheless did not comply with state amendments to the building code.
“That may have been why he said they met the code, but that’s not really the full code,” said Gast-Bray, who added that Clem’s initial plan for the renovation, which included a sprinkler system, would have met the code. “ ... Our inspector has been very deliberate and patient trying to work through this. There is a way to do this. If they had stuck with the original plan, it wouldn’t be an issue.”
Clem said on Wednesday that he stood by the email, but declined further comment on the matter.
On South Main Street Wednesday near the former library, Lin Courtemanche said she sympathized with Clem’s struggles to get through the regulatory hurdles, but questioned the form of protest he has chosen.
“I think it’s kind of juvenile,” said Courtemanche, a Lebanon resident. “I mean, it didn’t get my attention. I haven’t even noticed it.”
Miguel Hernandez, a 16-year-old Lebanon High School student who was hanging out in front of the Kilton Public Library on Wednesday, said he often walks down the street, but hadn’t noticed how tall the grass had grown in front of the former library. Asked what he thought of the lawn-care protest, Hernandez shook his head, looking puzzled.
“I think it’s a little bit weird,” he said.
While passers-by on Wednesday may or may not have noticed the unkempt lawn, others certainly have.
“Of course I’ve noticed it,” said Suzanne Prentiss, West Lebanon’s Ward 1 city councilor. “I was honestly surprised, because I’ve always thought that David Clem has pretty high standards for the work that he did, and I thought, ‘Boy, that lawn looks a little unruly.’ ”
Prentiss said the state of the lawn caught her eye, but it didn’t raise any red flags until she came to learn that Clem was neglecting the grounds there because of an issue with a state building code.
“It’s kind of in the city’s hands to an extent, and I think he can protest, but he’s really protesting with the wrong people,” she said. “And, respectfully, blaming the city gets kind of old. I thought we finally struck a collaborative chord with Mr. Clem.”
Patrick Flanagan, whose real estate offices are just across the street from the former library, described the lengthy review process of the project and complications between Clem and city officials as a “black eye to West Lebanon.
“This whole process in general ... we went to many meetings, zoning meetings, in support (of the renovation project),” he said. “It just seems like he’s had barriers all the way through. I don’t know the nitty gritty of it, but just on the surface, my feeling is that it’s very important to have this project in West Lebanon for the vitality of the neighborhoods in the area.”
Flanagan said he called Clem about the lawn nearly two months ago, and several people have brought it up to him since then. He added that while he supports the project, he doesn’t support the protest.
“I don’t like it, and I’m not supporting that,” Flanagan said of the overgrown library grounds. “But the bigger picture is, he’s had to fight this thing all the way through, and at some point I’d like to see someone let this thing go a little further.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.