Dartmouth College apartment project mired in concerns about wetlands

  • Developers have proposed constructing a 309-unit development to house Dartmouth College graduate students in four apartment buildings on Mount Support Road in Lebanon, N.H. (Courtesy City of Lebanon) Courtesy City of Lebanon

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/9/2020 9:24:21 PM
Modified: 6/9/2020 9:24:13 PM

LEBANON — Plans to build a $50 million housing complex for Dartmouth College graduate students continue to draw concern from city officials, who this week cautioned developers against intruding on nearby wetlands.

Members of Lebanon’s Planning Board on Monday stressed the importance of preserving several high- or very high-value wetlands on 53 acres of land about a mile south of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

One of those wetlands runs just outside the 309-unit development’s planned parking lot, which would include 557 spaces.

Another wetland snakes through the center of the project, running between a future access road and apartment buildings.

“It is a really, really lovely wetland parcel and they are so easily filled or starved of water,” longtime board member Joan Monroe told developers and Dartmouth College officials.

Meanwhile, the college and Michaels Student Living, the New Jersey-based company chosen to build and manage the project, say they’re growing frustrated with the Planning Board review.

The development — made up of four L-shaped four-story apartment buildings, a clubhouse and a small maintenance facility — was first pitched in January and accepted for a formal review two months later.

The Planning Board has heard nearly five hours of testimony on the project, according to Concord-based attorney Phil Hastings, who urged officials to wrap up.

“As we said from the very beginning of this project, timely consideration of this application is critical to the success of this project and to increasing the supply of affordable workforce housing,” he said.

The board ultimately continued discussions to its June 22 meeting, when Chairman Bruce Garland said he hopes to hold a final vote.

Michaels wants to start construction this year, have a rental office ready by 2021 and have tenants settled in for the start of Dartmouth’s 2022 academic year, according to Hastings.

The project’s 309 apartments could hold 638 bedrooms, which would be rented out by the bed, according to the developers.

They’ve said in past meetings that units would be available via a “leasing waterfall” that would see units first rented to graduate students, then DHMC employees and finally Dartmouth College employees. Dartmouth’s undergraduate students will not be eligible to live in the new development.

But the project’s potential impacts on the surrounding natural landscape have drawn scrutiny for months.

The Lebanon Conservation Commission wrote a March 13 letter expressing concerns with the “extraordinary amount of parking spaces” proposed for the property, which is now made up of fields and forests.

Steve Schneider, who was then executive director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, also penned a letter stating similar concerns and proposing that developers build garages underneath planned apartments.

Michaels says it intends to temporary infringe on wetlands only during construction and would restore them afterward. Work also will require a wetland permit from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, which has its own approval process.

The development “encroaches only minimally into the wetlands on the property,” according to a May memo written by city staffers. The document goes on to say that the new buildings and parking lot will make up 18 acres of the 53-acre lot, and much of the parcel will be dedicated to open space.

Still, the idea of underground or in-building parking was broached by Planning Board members again Monday but greeted with little interest by the developers.

Kristina Vagen, vice president of Michaels Student Living, said incorporating parking within the buildings’ footprints would require different building materials and increase costs by 30%.

“The graduate students wouldn’t be able to afford their rent, which was the goal of doing the project to begin with,” she said.

“But they are among the most privileged young people in the nation,” replied Planning Board member Kathie Romano.

The exchange turned into a debate over whether the new apartments would truly be affordable or alleviate the Upper Valley’s housing woes.

Michaels has said rents would be similar to Dartmouth-owned Sachem Village in West Lebanon, where prices range from $1,100 a month to $2,225.

But Garland, the Planning Board chairman, wondered how many high-end cars he’ll see in the development’s parking lot three years from now.

“If it is a large number, this board is going to look very foolish,” he said.

The board will continue to debate the development at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, June 22. People can access the meeting at LebanonNH.gov/Live.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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