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Lebanon board denies variance for tall apartments proposed on Mount Support Road

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/6/2019 10:15:18 PM
Modified: 12/6/2019 10:25:09 PM

LEBANON — Plans to build a 250-unit apartment complex marketed toward Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employees hit a speed bump this week after the Zoning Board denied the project a variance needed to exceed Lebanon’s height restrictions.

The board voted, 3-1, to reject Massachusetts-based developer Saxon Partners’ request to construct two five-story apartment buildings on a 75-acre lot along Mount Support Road, roughly a mile south of the Lebanon-based medical center.

The buildings would reach 59 feet, according to plans submitted to the city. That’s 14 feet higher than allowed on the street, which parallels Route 120.

Donald Smith, a project manager at the firm, said engineers are “reworking” plans to comply with the height requirement.

He still maintains that the original plan rejected by the Zoning Board was reasonable, considering buildings at DHMC and those in downtown Lebanon are taller.

“We didn’t think it would be bad for the neighborhood,” Smith said on Thursday, adding that no neighbors spoke out against the project.

The decision was “pretty straightforward,” Zoning Board Chairman William Koppenheffer said on Thursday.

Any developer seeking a variance must prove their project faces an “unnecessary hardship,” which must be unique to that parcel of land, he said.

But nearly all of Mount Support Road must abide by a 45-foot height requirement, and Saxon Partners failed to explain why their parcel should be treated differently, Koppenheffer said.

“We can’t just willfully ignore the requirements of the zoning ordinance,” he said. “The applicants have to give us a good reason.”

In its application, Saxon Partners said taller building would allow for a “significant portion” of the property to be kept in its natural state, minimizing impacts on wetlands, wildlife corridors and protecting the surrounding natural resources.

“It’s cheaper to go vertical than it is horizontal,” Lebanon engineer Dan Nash said on Thursday.

Nash, who worked on the Saxon Partners project for more than a year, said foundations can be expensive, so developers often look to add floors rather than pour more concrete.

Concerns about stormwater runoff also make underground or first-floor parking popular, he said. Both require developers to use less land and provide for more compact buildings.

But first-floor parking effectively takes up a whole level of space that won’t go to housing units under Lebanon’s height restrictions, said Nash, who also serves on the Zoning Board but recused himself from Monday’s proceedings.

Lebanon developers have long complained that the city’s height limits deter infill and high-density construction needed to alleviate the Upper Valley’s housing shortage.

Height restrictions were among several barriers — including parking and setback requirements — to development identified by the attendees of a 2018 forum on affordable housing, said Mike Kiess, Vital Communities’ workforce housing coordinator.

“Developers said they could build higher-density units or development could be more feasible if those restrictions were eased,” he said via phone on Thursday.

Planners appear to be acting on those recommendations, and this spring proposed the creation of a “Lebanon Downtown” zoning district that would allow some buildings to reach 65 feet.

The city also is hoping to rezone two properties just north of Centerra Marketplace to the “general commercial one” zoning district.

The effort, which aims to open the neighborhood to new housing, would allow for a 55-foot building height, according to Lebanon Senior Planner Tim Corwin.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock is currently working with a consulting firm to find a developer to build housing on a lot the hospital system owns on the Hanover-Lebanon border off Route 120 behind Jesse’s Steakhouse, hospital officials said last month.

Tim Camerato can be reached at or 603-727-3223.

Valley News

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