Editorial: Calculating Lebanon’s Future Growth

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A consultant’s recent finding that a major sewer line serving much of Lebanon is nearing its functional capacity seems to have taken city officials somewhat by surprise. This is surprising in itself, given that a key to effectively evaluating any development proposal is determining whether a community’s infrastructure can handle it. On the upside, the report does provide an overdue opportunity to reassess the city’s whole approach to development and set its future direction. 

The proximate reason the study was undertaken was to gauge the potential impact of the Houses on the Hill proposal, which would site 283 single-family homes on 300 acres at the Carter Country Club. The consultants found that close to 80 percent of the capacity of the sewer interceptor line that would serve the development is spoken for, when permitted-but-as-yet-unbuilt projects are factored in along with existing use. Thus only another 110,000 gallons of wastewater per day — the amount generated by 70 additional homes — can be accommodated before a city-mandated threshold is reached, Interim City Manager Paula Maville told the Valley News. “The results of the study show that there’s not enough capacity in the system to handle the Houses on the Hill development as proposed,” she said.

The implications are even broader: The line at issue serves much of the city outside of West Lebanon, potentially affecting many development proposals, as staff writer Tim Camerato reported last month. Costly upgrades would be needed to increase the capacity, although just how costly has yet to be determined.

Mayor Sue Prentiss and Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara seem convinced that the city, as the commercial and employment hub of the Upper Valley, has little choice in the matter. “In order to sustain who we are today, we’re going to have to make these fixes and be prepared for the future. We can’t go back. We can’t roll ourselves back,” said Prentiss. Former City Councilor Steve Wood has a quite different view. He told Camerato that the sewer study should be a wake-up call for the city to slow the pace of development so it can better conserve its infrastructure assets.

Lebanon, of course, has long been riven by divisions between residents who think that the city’s land use boards act as a giant rubber stamp for developers’ every wish, and developers who think those same boards are where worthy projects go to die, sometimes after languishing for months, if not years. We can think of specific projects over the years where each side has had a point (although not on the same project). But it is going to be a struggle to reconcile the two versions into a coherent policy.

One problem is that the city’s stated objectives don’t always match the outcome of the process. For instance, the first of the Lebanon City Council’s guiding principles states that, “All actions and policies of the government of the City of Lebanon shall, first and foremost, benefit the current residents of the City of Lebanon.” Compare that with the comments of Melissa Billings, a resident of Wellington Circle, which is near the Houses on the Hill site. She recently told a community forum held as part of the search for a new city manager that: “We’ve been promised again and again that industry and growth and commercial development will lower our taxes. That has not been the case.”

City officials should take the opportunity now to assess not only the capacity of Lebanon’s infrastructure to accommodate more development and who ought to pay for any needed improvements, but also to take a step back and analyze their whole approach to the issue. What has been built in the city in recent years? What have been the costs and benefits of that development? Who has borne the costs and who has reaped the benefits? What is a sustainable pace of development that maintains a vibrant community but does not overtax its resources? These are all questions that deserve thoughtful consideration, and ones on which the public’s voice should be heard.