Lebanon Zoning Decision Gives Elks Club Option to Sell Land

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2018 12:01:47 AM
Modified: 1/8/2018 8:38:23 AM

Lebanon — Members of the Lebanon Elks Club are celebrating a recent City Council decision they say could help ease the club’s financial difficulties.

The council unanimously decided on Wednesday to forgo rezoning the Elks’ 63-acre property near Route 120. The move will allow the club to sell a 7.6-acre portion of the site to Dartmouth Coach, which hopes to build between 250 and 300 parking spaces there.

“It’s going to be all good. We’ll be here for another 68 years,” Scott Merrihew, the Elks’ exalted ruler, said on Sunday. “We’re going to be closing (the sale) probably in the beginning of February.”

The Elks have lobbied for months against a proposal to rezone the club’s property along Labombard and Heater roads to high-density residential use, a change from its current status in the light industrial zone.

They argued the change could kill the pending sale to Dartmouth Coach, which has signaled it doesn’t want to obtain a variance for the its planned parking lot. Without money from the sale, members said, the club would be in dire financial straits.

However, city planners have said the proposal was in line with Lebanon’s master plan, which was completed in 2012 and calls for more housing near downtown and nearby industries.

City Planning Director David Brooks reiterated that stance on Wednesday, and said the proposal was subject to a rigorous public input process before being brought to the council for the first time in October.

“The master plan and the future land use map is a community document. It represents what the community has expressed for its preferred vision for the future,” he said in an audio recording of the meeting. “It’s not a unanimous document, it’s a consensus document.”

But councilors were skeptical that the master plan represents the current climate surrounding the property, or the Elks’ financial situation.

“A lot can change in five years. Even in that particular neighborhood, a lot has changed,” said Councilor Karen Liot Hill. “We’re hearing from people that maybe what was expressed five years ago is not exactly right for today.”

Councilors also referenced input from Elks and club supporters in making their decision. About 24 members crammed into Council Chambers for the meeting but did not speak before the council decision.

“You don’t have to worry about this now and you can move forward with your plans,” Liot Hill said to applause from the audience. “We heard you loud and clear.”

The council also decided against rezoning roughly 100 acres of a property near Etna Road to a rural zone from its current light industrial designation.

The land, which is owed by developer Jay Campion, needs to be better protected from development because of its “sensitive areas” and steep slopes, according to city planners. Both the Lebanon Planning Board and Conservation Commission supported the proposal. But Campion has threatened to sue the city over the “down zoning,” arguing he’s already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the site.

The developer currently holds two zoning variances, which would allow him to build a natural gas facility and fuel depot on the property. Campion is no longer pursuing the venture himself, but a deal penned with Liberty Utilities in 2016 gives that company development rights, if its plans win approval from the state Public Utilities Commission.

City officials have said those variances will remain in effect if the rezone were to move forward.

However, Campion argued last week that the city doesn’t have enough evidence to prove the land is in danger, and again threatened to take Lebanon to court.

“Zoning is not an absolute right. There is no guarantee that any property owner is going to have the zoning that existed at the time of purchase in perpetuity,” Liot Hill said. “I don’t think that it’s helpful to threaten the city with legal action over this.”

Councilors agreed that while some portion of the property might need protection through the city’s zoning ordinance, they decided to hold off on rezoning it now, saying a more comprehensive plan is needed.

“I think this could use some more work and maybe the next time around we’ll take another look at this,” said Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727- 3223.

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