Developer, city butt heads over gravel parking lot for West Lebanon mixed-use project

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 15, 2019

WEST LEBANON — Developer David Clem said he’s attended 50 public hearings on his proposed River Park project since purchasing 38 acres at the end of Crafts Avenue in 2007.

But it’s still unclear when construction will begin on the planned biomedical and residential development near the Connecticut River.

Clem, who last year proposed revising the project’s 2011 building schedule, is again locked in a battle with city planners over his plans. This time, a dispute over his proposal to build temporary parking lots appears to be holding up progress.

“I’m measuring fog here trying to figure out what you want, as opposed to what the city engineer wants, as opposed to what your site plan regulations say,” Clem told the Planning Board on Monday night, according to an audio recording of the meeting. “And I’ve spent a lot of money measuring fog in Lebanon over the last 10 years and I’ve had enough. I’m not willing to do it.”

Clem hopes to move up construction of a 125-unit apartment building and second mixed-use building at River Park. The buildings — located close to the development’s entrance off Route 10 — initially were scheduled to come late in the project, but Clem said the Upper Valley’s need for housing necessitates the change.

However, rephasing the project will push back construction of parking garages planned for the property, a problem Clem hoped to fix by creating temporary gravel parking lots for tenants.

But Clem and the city are at odds over how those lots should be built and how much oversight Lebanon’s planners should be afforded.

The city wants Clem to provide a design for the parking lots, as well as a timeline of when they’ll be used.

“I think the best way to resolve this is for the board to obtain a design for what the applicant wants to build and approve it, and that becomes the clear design to which those parking spaces need to be built,” Lebanon Planning Director David Brooks said.

Without those plans, the city wouldn’t know what the parking lots are made of, whether there’s adequate drainage or lighting and when the spaces would be replaced, Brooks said.

Meanwhile, Clem argued that the city has enough oversight and could refuse a building permit for construction it doesn’t like. He also balked on Monday at officials’ request for a performance bond that could be used in the event he can’t complete the parking garages himself.

“You’re asking me to do your job in defining policy standards for temporary parking,” Clem said while noting the city only has formal regulations governing permanent parking.

“There is plenty of precedent, as I attempted to show, for numerous parking facilities that simply have gravel, that don’t have drainage, that don’t even have lighting, some of which are owned by the city and the school (district),” Clem said. “If there is a standard, it ought to be written and I will meet it.”

As for a timeline, Clem said the market largely will determine when phases of River Park are complete. Because of delays excavating Crafts Avenue, three out of four homebuyers he had lined up pulled out of plans to purchase lots from his street extension project, he said.

Clem told the Planning Board he also recently lost potential tenants for office and biomedical space at River Park.

Planning Board members appeared to side with city planners on Monday, worrying that an economic downturn could make the temporary parking lots a permanent fixture at the development.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for you to submit some suggestion — ‘a gravel parking lot so many inches deep of gravel and some stormwater (drainage),’ ” Planning Board member Gregory Schwarz said.

The Planning Board will continue its discussion of River Park at its next meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, May 28.

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