Jim Kenyon: David Clem and City of Lebanon Have Control Issues

There’s nothing like an old-fashioned Mexican standoff to liven up the dog days of summer. With the old West Lebanon Library serving as their battleground, developer David (hell no, I won’t mow!) Clem and the powers that be at Lebanon City Hall seem determined to turn a win-win into a lose-lose.

It’s hard to know which side to root for.

Clem, who bought the shuttered library from the city in 2012 for $131,000, has a solid reputation for breathing new life into historically significant buildings that have fallen into disrepair. (The former Congregational Church in Wilder that he transformed into a community and event center being a good example.) But Clem, 64, is no Dale Carnegie. He comes across as a guy with deep pockets who is accustomed to getting his way. And if he doesn’t? He threatens to pick up his ball and head home.

His current spat with city officials— over a building permit for renovations to the old library — comes after he spent years fighting City Hall to get approval for his massive River Park project on Route 10 in West Lebanon. River Park, spread out over 40 acres close to the Connecticut River, is a $500 million endeavor that is projected to be home to research labs, offices, retail space and private residences by the time it’s completed in the next 15 years or so.

Clem’s plans for the West Lebanon Library are on a much smaller scale, coming in somewhere under $1 million. But the Hanover developer’s underlying problem with Lebanon officials is the same. They really don’t trust each other.

After a year of face-to-face meetings, emails and phone calls, Clem still can’t get city officials to sign off on his renovation plans. “I’ve spent $25,000 on consultants doing what the city asked for,” he told me last Thursday. “If they don’t want me here, I don’t want to be here. I can’t continue to justify wasting resources, which is primarily my time, to get (the city’s) approval.”

As prickly as Clem might be, it would behoove city officials to remember that he has taken an old building off the city’s hands with plans to turn it into offices and a private residence that will not only benefit Lebanon’s property tax rolls, but upgrade Main Street in West Lebanon.

And I think it’s fair to say that Clem isn’t the only developer who gets frustrated with the city’s tendency to move at a glacial pace. Watching the city in action (or inaction, as the case might be), conjures up memories of the late — and portly— Red Sox General Manager Lou Gorman. When Roger Clemens was holding out for more money during spring training of 1987, Gorman turned to a group of frenzied reporters and calmly summed up the situation: “The sun will rise, the sun will set, and we’ll have lunch.”

Of course, when the Lebanon City Council is your leader, what else can the public expect from its bureaucracy? It once took the council 27 months to hire a city manager.

Elephants give birth faster.

Current City Manager Greg Lewis (the council took only 15 months to get him on board in 2011) told me when I stopped by his office last week that “we need to work on our processes as a city. We want to be more flexible, friendlier and faster.”

To help improve the city’s responsiveness, Lewis said, he’s thinking about conducting a “work-flow analysis” of City Hall. (That, I think, is unlikely to reassure Clem.)

Clem has stated that he wants to make the first two floors of the library, which was built in the late 1800s, into the headquarters for his company, Lyme Properties. And now that they’re empty-nesters, Clem and his wife, Kathy, would live on the top floor, he said. He also plans in the next couple of years to build an addition on the back of the library, which, among other things, would increase their living space.

But here’s the rub: The city maintains that state fire safety codes require proposed “mixed use” buildings meet certain state-of-the-art standards. The simplest way for Clem to meet those standards would be to install a sprinkler system.

Clem is willing to install the sprinkler system, estimated to cost about $80,000, but just not right away. Logistically, he said, it makes sense to put the equipment used to run the sprinklers in the future addition because it would have more room.

At City Hall, Clem’s later-rather-than-sooner idea has fallen on deaf ears.“We support what he’s doing, but we can’t change the state code,” said Lewis.

Clem contends the city doesn’t need to. In historic buildings, such as the library, “state code gives ultimate discretion to the (city’s) building inspector, he said. “I’m not asking (the city) to do anything improper or illegal. This isn’t a safety issue. It’s a control issue.”

For Clem, too. In a protest against the city’s building permit process, he allowed the library’s grass to grow to nearly 3 feet high earlier this summer. He’s now mowing the lawn, but last week he boarded up most of the library’s windows, figuring it could be a while before the stalemate ends.

Clem acknowledges he’s not the go-along-to-get-along type. He’s a self-made man who worked construction jobs during summers in his home state of Texas to help pay his way through Dartmouth, where he enrolled without ever having visited.

He made his mark — and a lot of his money — as a developer in Cambridge, Mass., where he served on the City Council. In 2007, Clem and his partners sold a bunch of their buildings for a reported $531 million. Now, Clem and his wife have their six-bedroom, six-fireplace home in Hanover on the market for $2.7 million.

So why won’t a man of his means just give the city what it wants and spend $80,000 on a sprinkler system that he intends to install eventually, anyway?

“Don’t misinterpret passion for stubbornness,” he said. “I have both.”

Right. There’s probably enough misinterpretation going on here already.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net