Planning Board derails major West Lebanon development

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2019 10:13:39 PM
Modified: 10/16/2019 10:13:29 PM

WEST LEBANON — Long-standing plans for a major commercial development off Glen Road were derailed this week by city officials who argued that developers failed to make sufficient progress on the 12-year-old project.

The owners of the 92-acre Iron Horse Park say they’ve spent more than $7 million preparing a former gravel and asphalt site to house 660,000 square feet of retail, office and industrial space near Route 12A. But members of Lebanon’s Planning Board said that those improvements don’t include sewer, water or road work necessary for future buildings.

“We clearly saw a lot of work has been done on the site, but, in my mind, that is all preparatory work,” Planning Board Chairman Bruce Garland said in an audio recording of the board’s Tuesday night meeting.

The Planning Board that night voted, 5-4, to deny a waiver needed to continue work on the project and is now required by its rules to also deny a two-year extension of Iron Horse Park’s development rights. The project first won Planning Board approval in 2012. Owners of the site applied for Iron Horse Park’s third extension in May, saying more time is needed to secure a developer with the deep pockets to build out the site.

Developers had hoped to bring a major big-box retailer like Target or Costco to the site, which is visible from Interstate 89, but it hasn’t come to pass, given major changes in retail patterns in the past decade.

Lebanon Senior Planner Tim Corwin said on Tuesday that the city’s staff will work over the next month to prepare a “well-crafted, written” denial that could be acted on in November.

The decision means that Iron Horse Park as it was first proposed in 2007 will be “dead,” so long as the site’s owners don’t appeal to Grafton County Superior Court, according to Planning Director David Brooks.

Developers also could submit a new subdivision application, he added, but several new studies would be needed to address changes to Lebanon and its zoning ordinance.

“It would be a largely new application,” Brooks told the Planning Board.

It’s unclear whether Warren “Bud” Ames, co-owner of Twin State Sand and Gravel, will seek either legal action or apply for a new city review. Messages left for him and Manchester attorney Megan Carrier were not returned on Wednesday.

Ames has envisioned a 20-year buildout for Iron Horse Park, with the site housing a 150,000-square-foot commercial big-box store, along with three smaller retail sites capable of supporting restaurants, two office buildings and several industrial buildings near the railroad tracks. Overall, the project proposes building on 13 separate lots.

Officials working on the project have floated Target, Costco or Whole Foods as potential tenants of the proposed big-box store. However, Ames said on several occasions that he didn’t have the roughly $12 million required to build key infrastructure throughout the property, and finding a developer willing to foot the bill proved difficult.

While Ames said he had a developer in 2013, he put the Iron Horse property up for sale three years later for $15 million.

Garland, the Planning Board chairman, said he voted against extending the project partially because it relied on developers that never materialized. It didn’t help that little to no infrastructure work is finished.

“Most of the conditions are still unfilled six years after the approval date,” he said.

Meanwhile, board member Laurel Stavis said it was difficult to support a project that didn’t meet many of the city’s current goals. For example, housing, now in short supply in the Upper Valley, wasn’t allowed at such developments when Iron Horse Park first applied for approval, she said.

“The economy has changed … and the way developments are taking shape have changed,” Stavis said. “It seems to me that it’s difficult to find a pathway to get to what was originally envisioned.”

However, longtime board member Joan Monroe argued that Ames and his colleagues haven’t completed work because of economic hardship and not any shortcomings of their own.

The Great Recession of 2008 left many brick-and-mortar stores struggling, while online retailers such as Amazon have taken a big share of sales, she said. Considering those facts, it makes sense that developers are reluctant to take on a project so reliant on retail, Monroe said.

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




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