City Hall Still Doesn't Get It

City Hall still doesn’t get it.  This past week, the Lebanon City Council voted not to accept River Park Drive as a public street.  In a memo to the City Council, the City Manager made the incredible statement that “There is no public benefit to making this a public street.” The two dozen neighborhood residents in attendance to support River Park were as dumbfounded as Lyme Properties.  We thought public access to the Connecticut River, an expanded tax base, job opportunities, an Advanced Transit intermodal facility, and a mixed-use development that keeps cars out of the Crafts Avenue neighborhood was a significant benefit.  Perhaps the City Council should re-read the current Lebanon Master Plan.  At a minimum the five city councilors who voted against River Park Drive should explain why Centerra and DHMC are allowed public streets and River Park is denied.

What happened at the Planning Board hearing the next night is even more confusing.  After waiting seven months after the site plan application was submitted to request that Lyme Properties pay an additional $9,500 for a peer review of the third traffic study submitted for River Park, a majority of the board reversed direction and decided they were only interested in knowing what would happen to the intersection at Bridge Street and Main if the majority of vehicles came from the south and west instead of from the north.

Pay attention folks because this type of last minute second guessing is at the heart of why the Lebanon planning process is intellectually bankrupt.  As part of the June 11, 2010 site plan application, Lyme Properties presented two traffic studies to city staff, one prepared by VHB a reputable traffic consultant experienced with life science research in the Cambridge/Boston research cluster, and one by Holden Engineering, a local firm experienced in the Lebanon site plan review process.  The Holden traffic study analyzed 16 intersections in West Lebanon that would most definitely be impacted by traffic generated by River Park.  In this study, Holden suggested that 60% of the traffic to River Park would likely arrive from the north since life science researchers were likely to be affiliated with Dartmouth College, the Thayer School of Engineering, and DHMC, all located to the north and likely to use Route 10.  This was an educated guess, albeit one based on professional judgment, and Holden and his traffic engineer testified to this in a public hearing before the Planning Board and in meetings with the city’s planning staff.

Ironically, Hanover planning officials agreed with this assessment and demanded that Holden be required to study three more intersections in Hanover.  The Lebanon planning staff demanded that Holden be required to study 14 more intersections in Lebanon.  The N.H. Department of Transportation demanded that Holden study Exits 19 and 20 on Interstate 89.  Lyme was required to commission yet another traffic study for River Park, one that cost an additional $60,000 to complete.  This study was submitted seven weeks later on August 17, 2010.

On December 14, 2010 city planning staff recommended that the Planning Board require Lyme to pay an additional $9,500 to the City in order to hire a traffic consultant to “peer review” the latest Holden traffic study.  Three traffic consultants submitted proposals and Vanesse & Associates was hired by the city’s planning department on December 17, 2010.

The peer review scope was prepared by Vanesse & Associates, not the planning staff, and their contract called for the work to be completed in four weeks, or January 14, 2011.  Sixteen weeks later the peer review has not been completed.

At the Planning Board hearing on May 19th the Vanesse & Associates representative said Lyme was at fault because we had not responded to a letter they had forwarded to the Lebanon Planning Department on March 2, 2011 requesting that Lyme conduct new traffic counts on five intersections including the three Hanover intersections, and that Holden substantiate his projection that 60% of the traffic to River Park would arrive from the north.

With all of the restraint I could muster, I respectfully declined to pay for any more traffic counts or traffic studies.  I believe the Lebanon Planning Board has sufficient traffic information before them to make an informed judgment on River Park.  A majority of the Planning Board indicated they were no longer interested in the peer review, but would like to see the traffic counts at one intersection (Bridge Street and Main) if one assumed only 40% came from the north on Route 10.

It is Lyme’s position that if Vanesse & Associates believes the Holden assumptions are wrong, it is free to provide a contrary opinion to the board within the $4,500 they have remaining in the contract that Lyme was forced to pay for last January.  Yesterday, we received notice that the City Manager rejected this offer.

Lyme will not pay for any more traffic counts or traffic studies.  At this point, we have spent over $110,000 for professional traffic analysis – enough is enough.

Perhaps Lebanon officials should consider what might happen at Bridge and Main if Lyme abandons River Park and the alternative site across the river in Hartford is developed.  Once again the lack of responsible planning in Lebanon will provide more traffic in West Lebanon and little else.  What is the public benefit to Lebanon of that outcome?