WEST LEBANON – The city is abandoning a proposal to build playgrounds on a 20-acre forested property behind the old Kmart in western Lebanon after conservation officials challenged the idea at a meeting the last week.
Members of the Lebanese Conservation Commission feared that the construction of playgrounds would force the city to cut down trees and contribute to future flooding.
The patch – located at the confluence of the Connecticut and Mascoma rivers – should remain largely untouched so that it can serve as a wildlife habitat and a place for hiking and fishing, they said.
“I think getting playgrounds in Lebanon is an uphill battle,” Ernst Oidtmann, chairman of the commission, said in a video recording of the meeting.
“Just look at the map here,” he added as a diagram of the Route 12A corridor was on screen. “There is too much parking compared to nature.”
The commission’s decision is a blow to the city’s efforts to build new fields for its soccer, baseball and softball leagues. Recreation advocates say there’s a deficit of open spaces that translates to less playing and practice time, scheduling issues and fewer opportunities to rest between sessions.
“Monday to Saturday during a sports season, these grounds are used all the time,” Paul Coats, director of Lebanon’s Department of Recreation, Arts and Parks, told the commission.
Coats said there was “no relief in sight” to the current shortage of playgrounds. And while the city explored construction elsewhere, he said, it’s hard to find a location without drainage or access problems.
Last month, Coats proposed to build three playgrounds and a 40-car parking lot along the eastern edge of the city-owned Two Rivers Conservation Area.
The fields would have operated from dawn to dusk, would require no lighting, and would be serviced by a small driveway. In exchange for letting the city build the fields, Coats offered to help contribute to the maintenance of an existing trail system.
While some members of the Conservation Commission were initially skeptical, others said last week they had come to oppose the proposal after visiting the site.
Member Don Lacey said he initially thought the project was a “win-win” for recreation and conservation. But on a recent trip, he noticed a collection of Eastern Cottonwoods in the area of the proposed fields.
“Virtually all of that should be reduced,” he said, adding that nearby Interstate 89 sound might also make it undesirable for organized sports.
Meanwhile, member Bruce James said he researched the soils in the area and found that those on the Two Rivers property were “very sandy and very permeable”.
The area is prone to flooding and may not be suitable for proposed fields, said James, a retired professor of soil chemistry at the University of Maryland.
Coats acknowledged that a wetland mitigation project by the Army Corps of Engineers could prevent at least one of the playgrounds from being built.
He added that the Upper Valley Land Trust, which bought the property in 1989 and still has legal rights to protect it, refused to review the project before Conservation Commission approval.
“They don’t want to insert their own fundamental ethics into the discussion,” Coats said.
However, Coats said, his department intends to be good stewards of all the lands it oversees.
“We try to preserve these areas and we understand the value and the responsibility that comes with preserving different lands,” he said. “But we also have to, I believe, take a very holistic approach to this whole city and what the health of our whole city needs.”
Although the commission has not formally voted on the project, Coats said Wednesday it was unlikely to move forward.
“The message was clear. The project has to come off the table,” he said in a phone interview. “Unfortunately, the search (for another site) is having problems. There are no good options.
Tim Camerato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.