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Proposal for playing fields behind incoming Target store worries conservationists

  • A bank of snow plowed from the Kmart plaza parking lot rises between the building and the Two Rivers Conservation Area in West Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, March 11, 2021, where Lebanon Recreation and Parks has proposed building several athletic fields. The former Kmart building is currently under renovation to become a Target store. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A sign marks the start of a network of walking trails on the 24 acre Two Rivers Conservation Area in Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, March 11, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Deandre Burns, of Lebanon, runs after a pass thrown by Trent Porter, of Lebanon, not pictured, in the parking lot of the Upper Valley Plaza, which is connected by a walking trail to the Two Rivers Conservation Area, in West Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, March 12, 2021. The friends were relaxing after traveling to Hartland for a game of disc golf earlier that day. “We had to get out of the house,” said Burns. “You can’t stay inside on a 60 degree day.” A proposal by Lebanon Recreation and Parks would build four athletic fields in the conservation area. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • New tree plantings dot the meadows in the Two Rivers Conservation Area in West Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, March 11, 2021. The land was once a gravel pit and used as a dump for construction materials, before being conserved by the Upper Valley Land Trust in 1989. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/15/2021 9:57:06 PM
Modified: 3/15/2021 9:57:05 PM

WEST LEBANON — Recreation advocates are eyeing a 20-acre conserved parcel at the confluence of the Connecticut and Mascoma Rivers as a potential new home for playing fields, worrying some conservationists who would rather see the site preserved for hikers, anglers and wildlife.

The city-owned Two Rivers Conservation Area, located behind the former Kmart store in West Lebanon, could house three fields and a 40-car parking lot on its eastern edge, according to Paul Coats, director of the Lebanon Recreation, Arts and Parks Department.

Building near commercial stores would protect most of the property’s valuable habitat and ease the city’s shortage of playing fields, Coats said in an interview on Monday.

Soccer, baseball and softball leagues have struggled to book time at Lebanon’s existing fields, he said, especially since the loss of Elks Field near Route 120 to Dartmouth Coach in 2017.

“Our deficit is something that we’ve been feeling for quite some time,” Coats said. “We basically have to use every single blade of grass in our system.”

High demand also means officials aren’t able to adequately rest the fields, Coats said. It’s becoming a challenge to maintain healthy turf given the city’s policies against using pesticides and chemicals, he added.

He pitched plans to effectively share the Two Rivers property to a skeptical Lebanon Conversation Commission last week, saying the creation of new fields could also come with much-needed maintenance of the property’s existing trail network.

The fields, which would be just north of nearby Interstate 89, would operate from dawn to dusk, would not require lights and would be served by a small driveway near the shopping plaza.

But some Conservation Commission members said they aren’t yet ready to OK the project, citing a reluctance to disturb Two Rivers’ flood plain forest.

The type of forest typically contains silver maples, green ash, sugar maples and box elder trees. However, Two Rivers also has a small population of rare hackberry trees and contains “one of the richest floras of any area in Lebanon,” according to the city’s 2010 natural resources inventory.

Waterfowl, wading birds, hawks, crows, and warblers also visit the property throughout the year.

Conservation Commission member Sarah Riley said during last week’s meeting that the site is an “oasis” that attracts birders, anglers and those out to enjoy a quiet walk.

She said that at most she would support a playground at the property.

“I think we do need to bring in more human activity into Two Rivers but what I had in mind was more active management,” she said, referring to the clearing of trails and removal of invasive species.

State Rep. Susan Almy, another Conversation Commission member, said she could see playing fields serving as a “buffer” between conservation land and the neighboring stores.

Almy said the property, which was purchased by the Upper Valley Land Trust in 1989 and deeded to the city a year later, has accumulated some trash over the years because of illegal dumping, and that a more active use involving fields might help curb that problem. The Kmart building is also expected to be redeveloped into a Target store.

However, Almy wasn’t sold on Coats’ plan of three fields and a parking lot and asked him to bring back a smaller proposal. Most other members agreed and also advocated for a smaller project. Among the few in favor was Bruce James who said the addition of playing fields could bring more people to enjoy the property.

“I think that by bringing young athletes together with families, with others near each other. there might be some mutual benefits for education for the kids who are there, parents, whoever,” he said.

Before the Conservation Commission offers a final verdict, members asked city officials to reach out to the Upper Valley Land Trust, which still has legal rights to protect the property.

Commission members also requested that the property’s deed be examined to determine whether any legal obstacles stand in the way.

According to the documents presented last week, the site is to be used for “agricultural, forestry, educational, open space, boating access and non-motorized passive recreational actives only.” The deed allows for “a playing field.”

Coats said Monday that he hopes to complete those tasks before the Conservation Commission’s next meeting on April 4. If it approves of his plans, he hopes to apply for federal grants to fund the work.

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




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