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Town-Gown Fieldhouse Spat

We’ve written in the past about the College’s planned fieldhouse — a utilitarian, 70,000 ft² structure that is going to cost an inexplicable fortune:



That said, the building is more than necessary. As in so many areas, the administration has fallen behind the competitive curve: Leverone is jammed up at all hours. The structure, which was built in 1965, was adequate for the men’s teams that existed back in the day; with the advent of women’s varsity teams, it has long since been unable to handle demand.

However the College did not reckon with the NIMBY selfishness of the new structure’s residential neighbors, and the intellectual sloppiness of the Town of Hanover’s Planning Board. Several weeks ago the Board voted 4-1 against allowing the construction of the building in the College’s institutional zone next to the Boss Tennis Center:

New Fieldhouse.jpg

The Planning Board’s members seemed to be swayed by the neighbors’ complaint that the building would impact the character of their neighborhood, their property values, and cast a shadow on several homes at some times of day, even though the College’s plan met, as the Board’s members forthrightly admitted, all of the requirements of the Town’s zoning ordinance.

Several aphorisms come to mind: “The difference between a developer and an environmentalist is that the environmentalist has already built a home”; and more classically, Henry David Thoreau in Walden:

Thoreau doing good.jpg

The issue here is one of property rights. The landowners who own homes next to the College’s institutional district have no right to assume that the pretty “sunken field” across the street from them will remain green and untouched for eternity. Dartmouth had already built Thompson Arena, the Boss Tennis Center and the Scully-Fahey stadium in that area, and the Town’s zoning ordinance does not stand in the way of an additional facility. While Hanover’s overall planning ordinance does take into account the Town’s aesthetics (maximum building heights; no commercial buildings in residential neighborhoods, etc.), the Planning Board itself does not sit in arbitrary and unlimited judgement on the look and impact of individual new buildings. It is duty bound to uphold the law. That the Board now arrogates to itself such a subjective and unfettered power should put fear in the hearts of citizens. It is not an overstatement to ask just what other tyrannies await us?

I faced the same type of capriciousness in constricting my childcare center in neighboring Lebanon. Under the misguided notion that the building codes were the law of the land, we designed and prepared a budget for a project that did not include sprinklers (saving about 4% of our construction budget).

Now before you, dear reader, presume to be an expert in fire safety (as the Lebanon Planning Board did), you should be cognizant of several facts: for a small building (9,400ft²) such as ours, the building code does not require sprinklers. Nor does the national fire chief’s generally-more-conservative commentary on the code (the fire chiefs explicitly note that sprinklers are not required for a ground-floor-level childcare facility with adequate egress). Why? For one reason, there has never been a fire-related fatality in a licenced childcare center. We went so far as to do a survey of New Hampshire childcare centers that did have sprinklers — because they are in large structures. All 70 centers told us that their sprinklers had not been activated even once in the last decade.

That information did not restrain the members of Lebanon’s Planning Board from imposing such a requirement on us (at a final cost of $75,000) — even though their responsibility did not extend to building code enforcement (we were before them to review our site plan), let alone requirements clearly exceeding the code. Spare us from well-meaning citizens boards uninfluenced by research, facts and a respect for the law.

The College has now made the decision to take the Town to court on the matter. Good for Phil and his team. Entrepreneurs and builders all over the Upper Valley are applauding the College. With the help of a competent judge, the administration should obtain a decision reining in Hanover’s Planning Board, and the Grafton County Court’s ruling will restrict as a matter of precedent New Hampshire citizens’ boards that range far beyond their grant of power. In doing so, the College will do a service to the State and to democracy.

Addendum: At a time when the nation’s legal and constitutional restraints are considered by many people to be under some pressure, the Valley News quoted one of the project’s residential neighbors, a doctor at DHMC who holds both an MD and a Ph.D.:

Julie Kim, who would have been one of the closest abutters, said board members had taken an “aspirational” step outside the letter of town ordinances, and looked beyond to what the character of the town should be. “That was the right decision,” she said. “This is outside the box, really, in terms of rules and regulations. That’s huge.”

God save us from citizens’ boards that make decisions “outside the box, really, in terms of rules and regulations” — and from people whose understanding of basic civics is so limited. When did we forget that government staffers are there to uphold the law as it was voted on by the legislature, and not to make up new laws as they see fit on a case-by-case basis?


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