Fingers pointing over River Park trail closure following dining car dispute

  • Gryffin, left, a one-year-old English Labrador retriever, and Jake, a five-year-old golden retriever, play in an open field at River Park in West Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, May 25, 2023. “This is his favorite place in the world,” said Jake’s owner Leslie Achmoody, of West Lebanon, who takes walks on the property daily. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News / report for america, file — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/19/2023 8:26:30 PM
Modified: 9/20/2023 8:36:18 PM

LEBANON — The recent closure of trails in River Park by developers has resulted in confusion and conflicting explanations over the reason for the shutdown — where the developers attribute the closure to the city, while city staff assert the trails have never been a concern.

Residents were taken by surprise last week when Lyme Properties, which owns River Park, announced the immediate closing of their trials to the public.

“Temporary fences have been erected at the entrances and we ask that folks please respect the trail closure and no trespassing sign,” Chet Clem, of Lyme Properties, said in a written statement Sept. 12.

In explaining the decision, a sign posted at River Park declared that “the Lebanon planning staff have determined that the River Park trails are a site plan violation.”

Clem also said in an online statement that planning staff deemed the trails “unpermitted improvements” because they were not part of the River Park site plan that the city Planning Board approved in 2011.

But city planning staff, in interviews this week, said they haven’t even discussed the trails with Lyme Properties.

“At this point the city planning department or zoning enforcement has not issued any notices of violation” to River Park, Planning Director Nathan Reichert said.

“We don’t have the authority to dictate who does or who doesn’t have access to their property,” said Deputy Planning and Development Director Tim Corwin.

Importantly, the trail closure came one day after a disagreement between city staff and River Park developers at a Sept. 11 Planning Board meeting about a 1920s Worcester dining car — which Lyme Properties wanted to utilize as a restaurant for festivals and other events.

At the meeting, Lyme Properties was appealing a city decision requiring the approval of a minor site plan of the proposed restaurant.

In a letter in April, Clem cited a city statute that requires only a site plan review if there is “an appreciable change” to the property. Clem also noted that River Park is in a zone that allows restaurants and that one of its proposed buildings already received approval to have dining and retail from the Planning Board.

The only reference to trails at the Sept. 11 meeting was introduced by David Clem, father of Chet and founder of Lyme Properties.

David Clem appeared to be responding to a comment by Corwin that unapproved site improvements were made to accommodate the dining car, including grading of the land, a gravel walkway to the structure and a parking area.

David Clem asked if River Park’s trails would also require site plan review since they were not part of the approved site plan.

However, Corwin — in his only comment regarding River Park’s trails — said, “It would be inappropriate for me to answer that question at this time without knowing the full set of (details).”

“That question caught me completely off-guard,” Corwin said in a phone interview. “I wasn’t sure what they were asking me or why.”

Corwin said there might “theoretically” be a scenario in which a trail might need a site plan review, though he could not think of a reason that would apply to River Park’s trails.

In regard to the site improvements mentioned at last week’s meeting, Corwin explained the grading in itself was not the issue but that it was supporting the unpermitted dining car.

Chet Clem issued a written statement on Tuesday. 

“The planning staff can try to parse things however they want, but they put statements of violations in writing and reaffirmed in testimony that anything outside of our approved site plan requires formal review,” Clem said. “We don’t have to wait for an enforcement action to address the issues. Whether there’s a path forward for River Park remains to be determined, and we are protecting ourselves from any liability in the meantime.”

Corwin said he had to respond to a few emails from concerned residents about the trail, telling them that the city does not have the authority to shut down the trails.

Corwin said he learned of the dining car in April when Chet Clem asked about getting city approval to connect the dining car to the municipal water and sewer lines on River Park property.

Corwin proposed a “minor site review” — a less formal review by a group of city staff members, which is intended to be quicker and less involved than a review by the city Planning Board.

“The amount of time that staff spends with it is a little less intense than what it would be for a full planning approval,” Reichert explained. “Yet you still get the same technical input from all of the experts within the city.”

Corwin said the intent was to allow the developers to get the proposed restaurant approved in time for the Hootenanny music festival in July, which River Park co-hosted with the Lebanon Opera House.

“We were trying to get them to where they wanted to be,” Corwin said. “They might not have liked what we said would be necessary ... but there is no difference between how we work with them and (other developers).”

At the meeting last week David Clem announced he was withdrawing the appeal and would remove the two mobile structures — the dining car and a yellow building alongside it — from the property by the end of the month.

“But I will not subject myself to going through a site plan review for doing something that meets the spirit of the Planning Board (decision) and what the neighborhood enjoys,” Clem said.

Patrick Adrian can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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