Understanding The Ballot Before You Vote on March 9th

On Tuesday, March 9, 2010, the voters of Lebanon will have the opportunity to approve an amendment to the Lebanon Zoning Ordinance that will allow River Park to be developed on the former Bailey Bros site in West Lebanon.  The zoning amendment was put on the ballot via an initiative petition signed by 138 Lebanon residents in favor of River Park.

Voters may be confused by the conflicting statements concerning Zoning Amendment # 1 that appear on the ballot in accordance with the referendum procedure laid out in the Ordinance.  It is important to note that the recommendations from the City Council, Planning Board, and Conservation Commission are advisory, since only the voters can approve significant zoning changes in Lebanon. However, the voters who have not followed the months of public hearings, neighborhood meetings, and newspaper articles are entitled to the facts being presented in a fair and accurate fashion in order to make an informed decision.

The Friends of River Park have endeavored to educate the voters via River Park News distributed in the Valley News and local stores, this website, and site tours held the past four Saturdays.  The following is our rebuttal to the City Council and Conservation Commission statements in opposition to the zoning amendment that appear on the ballot.

City Council Statement:

1.       “The proposal is not in concert with the city’s current Master Plan or its current Future Land Use Map.”

FACT: The Council’s statement is simply not accurate.  The petitioners submitted over 50 examples of how Amendment # 1 is consistent with the Master Plan and also in strict conformance to the Council’s recently enacted policy regarding Sustainable Development.  Even the City’s attorney opined:  “A zoning provision is not illegal solely because it is inconsistent with the Master Plan.  A valid public purpose can be articulated in some other way for purposes of satisfying Substantive Due Process.”

2.       “The proposal would constitute ‘spot zoning’, and could be found illegal in a court challenge.”

FACT:  The City Council does not decide what is, and is not, spot zoning.  Indeed, the City’s attorney stated:  “I want to emphasize again that if the voters enact this rezoning, it will be entitled to a presumption of validity, and I certainly cannot give you a black-and-white ironclad conclusion that it is illegal.”

3.       “The proposed zoning change, from a residential zone to a combination of a landlocked light industrial Zone (IND-L) and a central business district (CBD), will not ensure public access to the Connecticut River, conservation design development, or any other expressed goals of its petitioners and advocates; it will, however, invite uses that would be incompatible with the adjacent residential areas.”

FACT:  The existing zoning provides no “guarantees” either.  In this case the affected landowner, working with the neighbors, created the River Park Master Plan in an open and transparent process.  The River Park Master Plan has been previewed in more than a dozen public forums for over one year and not one single resident has voiced any opposition.  In fact, dozens of neighbors have offered written support and attended multiple public hearings.  If the proposed uses are “incompatible with the adjacent residential areas”, why did all of the abutters and 138 Lebanon neighbors initiate the zoning change?

Perhaps the real question the voters should consider is why a majority of the City Councilors are opposed to smart growth, the potential for public access to the river, significant job development, and an expanded tax base?

Conservation Commission Statement:

“The Lebanon Conservation Commission disapproves for the following reasons:  from a conservation standpoint, the IND-L zone would allow uses that are more intense than would be appropriate for this location adjacent to the Connecticut River.”

FACT: The Conservation Commission initially voted not to oppose the rezoning petition.  However, in a meeting held just before the Christmas holiday with no members of the public present, they changed their vote. Why?  There was no new information presented to the commission and the information submitted by the petitioners documented that the map prepared by the City’s planning staff was inaccurate.  The proposed zoning change is not adjacent to the river; indeed, the setbacks from the existing residential neighbors are greater in an IND-L zone than the existing R-3 zone.  The existing zoning would allow in excess of 1.0 million SF over the entire 38 acre parcel, including private “McMansions” within 50 feet of the Connecticut River; the proposed zoning would reduce the density on the site by 30 percent and keep new buildings 200 feet back from the river.

Several commissioners subsequently voiced regret about the lack of a proper analysis prior to their vote, but it was too late to reconsider in time for the ballot process.

Planning Board Statement:

“The Lebanon Planning Board approves of and supports the zoning amendment.  The Lebanon Planning Board recommends approval for the following reasons:  the petitioned rezoning recognizes the unique characteristics of this land and its setting, has extensive neighborhood support, would represent appropriate uses for this land, and constitutes an exceptional opportunity for the future of Lebanon.”

FACT: No public body invested more time in touring the site, conducting public meetings, and soliciting neighborhood comment than the Planning Board.

The voters will decide on March 9th.  If the zoning change is approved, Lyme Properties will move quickly to implement the River Park Master Plan after the appropriate site plan review obligations are fulfilled.  If the voters reject the proposed amendment, we will accept the decision with regret and disappointment and the property will be sold with the current zoning intact.  I hope Lebanon voters will Vote Yes on Amendment # 1 and in doing so communicate to City Hall that the status quo is not helping to advance responsible economic development in the City.