Lebanon officials plan to put former Public Works plot on the market

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/31/2019 10:02:18 PM
Modified: 5/31/2019 10:02:10 PM

LEBANON — City officials say plans to market the redevelopment of the former Public Works facility are to begin this summer, despite warnings from developers and engineers who worry that Lebanon’s sewer-capacity problems will scare off potential buyers.

Earlier this month, the Lebanon City Council voted unanimously to issue a request for proposals seeking a developer for the nearly two-acre downtown property on Spencer Street.

A draft request calls on firms to design “a residential and/or mixed-use development of multiple stories of sufficient architectural character and quality.”

Advertisements seeking a developer will appear in Lebanon, Burlington, Manchester and Boston sometime in July, City Manager Shaun Mulholland said during a May 22 meeting of Lebanon’s Economic Vitality Exchange Committee. Proposals would then be accepted for 90 days, and a review process likely will run through the fall, he said.

But few firms would be willing to put time and money into building a residential complex at the 20 Spencer St. site, at least not until Lebanon expands access to the sewer system, developer Jay Campion said on Wednesday.

“I don’t think anybody is going to invest a lot of money in planning or development for a project until they know at the very least what the city services are going to look like,” Campion said in a phone interview. “You need to have sewer capacity to build.”

The city’s east end is under a partial building moratorium created in 2017 after engineers found that a sewer interceptor running from downtown to West Lebanon, which is home to the city’s sewage treatment plant, was nearing capacity.

And while the City Council voted this year to spend $1 million expanding the sewer line, Mulholland says construction won’t be complete until early December.

In the meantime, he intends to ask the City Council to extend the moratorium past its July 31 expiration date until the end of the year, according to an audio recording of the May 22 meeting.

“My sense is that if anyone wants to voice interest (in the Spencer Street project), it would be after they got assurances from the city that there would be sewer capacity,” Campion said.

The developer, who owns land near Route 120, said he has already heard of others putting off projects until the sewer is fixed. Some people also talked of building their own treatment plants in order to avoid the moratorium, he said.

Dan Nash, the owner of Lebanon-based engineering firm Advanced Geomatics & Design, also has warned against advertising the city-owned property without a sewer solution in place.

“The highest and best use for Spencer Street, in my opinion, is multi-family housing. However, such use requires a chunk of sewer capacity,” he wrote in an email on Thursday. “Any reputable developers are going to shy away from preparing a proposal if sewer is in question. That leaves mini-storage? Hardly the best use for the property.”

Mayor Tim McNamara said on Wednesday that he understands those concerns.

“However, I don’t think that’s justification for holding up this RFP,” he said in a phone interview.

Potential developers will have the ability to ask city officials about sewer capacity, which is expected to double this winter, he said. They also can be assured that the City Council has committed to making improvements to the sewer system to accommodate future development, McNamara added.

“I don’t think it’s a big enough issue that it warrants waiting to send out the RFP until we absolutely have all the capacity in place,” he said. “We will see what kind of response we get.”

Mulholland said on Wednesday that there’s already interest in the project, and technically enough capacity in the sewer system to support it. Engineers say the sewer system could maintain an additional 135,997 gallons of waste per day, which amounts to the output from about 141 two-bedroom homes.

City officials have worked to draft the RFP since 2017, when the City Council turned down a $400,000 offer from developer Mike Davidson to purchase and redevelop the Spencer Street property.

At the time, Davidson proposed building 100 to 200 new housing units and about 200,000 square feet of office and commercial space in three five-story buildings.

However, city councilors said his offer was too low, considering the property was appraised at more than $900,000 at the time, and ordered the city conduct an open bidding process.

Davidson this week said he looks forward to seeing the RFP, and that “the dense and desirable redevelopment of our downtowns is what people want for many valid economic, environmental and social reasons.”

Davidson also said he believes the city has made progress in the last few years in working with developers.

“The plan we crafted and proposed two years ago would tie into and build upon the recreational spaces, public and private parking assets, and housing stock in the Spencer St/Rail Trail/Junior High area,” he wrote in an email. “This is a unique opportunity for Lebanon. We hope to be involved but, as Downtown residents and redevelopers, we will work with the City and neighbors to move the project forward in any and all ways.”

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

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