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Burton helps "un-snag" Lahout's development, bemoans poor economy

July 27, 2011
LITTLETON – Executive Councilor Ray Burton and local real estate developer Herb Lahout gathered last week in front of a large excavator and small retention pond. This was a rare, although modest, celebration – after all, a project was moving forward after several setbacks by town boards and the Department of Environmental Services. Dirt was being moved, people employed and, in this case, rental housing was being built.

It was a reprieve from Burton's daily chore of watching the North Country come apart. Never before in his memory has the region been so hard hit by such bad luck and bad news.

"Every day," Burton said in a previous interview "another slice of rural America is chopped off and down the river it goes."

For nearly 40 years, he has been a staple at countless ribbon cuttings and grand openings in these parts.

"Certainly," he said, "openings of new businesses and economic development ventures aren't as plentiful as they use to be." They've been replaced with closings and assessing government cuts. He was at the last graduation at Stratford High School, where 4 twelfth- graders received their diploma. Next fall Stratford students will be sent to Groveton High School.

Burton is fighting to keep the local unemployment office in Lebanon open and increase the hours of operation of the Littleton welcome center and rest area. He's also concerned about government regulation – particularly in areas of environmental protection that may squash or discourage economic development and that's what brought him to Lahout's holes.

Lahout's 29-acre development – known as Lahout Glen Apartments – has grown slowly over the years and includes a total of 81 units, but since the project disturbed more than 100,000 square feet of terrain, an alteration of terrain permit was required by the state Department of Environmental Services.

The project hit many snags by town boards. The Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected Lahout's application for a variance last year, denying his request for no setbacks instead of 40-foot setbacks required by the town. The Planning Board also rejected the application because of setbacks. It appeared the project was dead at that point but Lahout later submitted a later plan that met the setback requirements.

The project has not been without controversy. Since February 2010, when the project was first proposed, abutters, including Selectman Marghie Seymour, actively opposed building such a large cluster development in a rural residential setting, asserting it was inappropriate for the area.

"Lahout," Seymour said Monday, "is simply doing what he's supposed to do to meet the requirements" and she defended the DES process by adding, "his activities have changed our land."

Before continuing with his long term, $3 million expansion – that will include an additional 54 units – Lahout had to build four retention ponds to prevent potential damage from erosion and water runoff. These ponds – along with a thick book of elaborate engineering plans (including fence design) – have cost him "tens of thousands of dollars."

Lahout wishes DES looked at projects on a case-by-case basis, rather than a one-size fits all reaction. "This over-whelming regulation is BS," he added, "I think I'm a good steward" of this property. It discourages growth which translates to jobs, and Lahout said he only hires local subcontractors.

Burton, the unabashed promoter of North Country projects and local government largess, said "We don't find many Herb Lahouts these days" and people "need a roof over their heads." He interceded on Lahout's behalf. "Government gets snagged," he said, "and that's where I come in. I enjoy un-snagging things."

Staff writer Art McGrath also contributed to this story.

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