Lebanon Planning Board Reverses Stance, Sides With Elks

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/29/2017 12:12:02 AM
Modified: 11/29/2017 9:12:55 AM

Lebanon — The city’s Planning Board has joined the Lebanon Elks Club in opposing a proposed zoning change that some argue could sink the sale of club-owned land to Dartmouth Coach.

In a unanimous vote on Monday, the board asked city staff to scuttle an amendment that would rezone the Elks’ 63-acre parcel along Labombard and Heater roads to high-density residential use, a change from its current light industrial use. The City Council ultimately will be responsible for deciding whether to move forward with the change.

“It just makes sense to me to have industrial on both sides of the road through that area, now that we’re starting to get more and more developed,” Planning Board Chairman Keith Davio said, according to an audio recording of the meeting.

The board was urged on its decision by Elks members, who comprised much of the audience at City Hall. One by one, the club members argued the zoning change could deepen the club’s ongoing financial troubles by hampering the sale of 7.6 acres to Dartmouth Coach, which hopes to build between 250 and 300 parking spaces across from its new terminal.

“What we need from the IRS is confirmation that (the sale) will go through,” Elks trustee Thomas Toner said in the audio recording. “If it doesn’t go through, in a very short amount of time, everything’s gone.”

Elks members also asked planners to be mindful of the club’s good deeds.

If the Planning Board declined to side with the group, members said, uncertainty would cloud over its busiest season.

“We’re looking at a situation that we didn’t ask for, and we’re trying our best to dig ourselves out of this,” said Calvin Goude, a club officer. “We  have a hard time planning all this stuff because we don’t know if we’re going to be there (from) day to day.”

Although the zoning amendment drew considerable opposition from the Elks, it wasn’t drafted with malice toward the club, Lebanon Planning Director David Brooks said on Monday night.

Instead, he said, the proposal is part of a larger effort to bring Lebanon’s zoning districts in line with the city’s Master Plan, which was adopted in 2012.

The plan calls for high-density residential development at the Elks’ parcel largely because of its proximity to Interstate 89’s Exit 18 and businesses along the Route 120 corridor, he explained.

The amendment went through the “most robust community engagement process we undertake,” Brooks said in the audio recording.

The change was one of 35 citywide zoning amendments initially considered by planners before they whittled down the list to 19. Those changes were presented at two community meetings in May.

The planning office also included the proposed Elks amendment in an online survey, where respondents largely approved of the change. The City Council then took up the proposals in October

“This is a community document. It represents the result of the best effort that we make on a regular basis to engage the public and find out what the community wants to see happen within the community,” Brooks said of the Master Plan.

“We moved forward with the belief that this is an accurate document knowing full well that times change, circumstances change, opinions change,” he said. “But we don’t know that until we hear it from the public.”

Although the Planning Board decided in favor of the Elks, it’s not certain Dartmouth Coach will have an easier go of building its proposed parking lot.

Rezoning the land would have required the company to obtain a variance from the Zoning Board, Brooks said, although that variance still might be required under the current regulations.

“There’s a possibility that it could be a variance either way,” Brooks said in the recording. “It’s not finalized one way or another.”

The proposed Elks zoning change wasn’t the only one that drew criticism on Monday night.

The board also heard opposition to a plan that would rezone land off of Etna Road to a rural zone from its current light industrial district.

“I would be very clear. If this goes through, we will litigate this. That’s just the way it is,” said attorney Brad Atwood, who represents developer Jay Campion.

Roughly 100 acres of the land that would be rezoned is owned by Campion, who has obtained two zoning variances to build a natural gas facility and fueling depot at the site.

While he’s no longer pursuing construction on his own, Campion has an agreement with Liberty Utilities that would allow the company to build there if it obtains approval from the state Public Utilities Commission.

Dan Nash, an area engineer and Zoning Board member, also spoke against the change, saying the rezoning process “violates the public trust.”

“Absent a compelling interest, the regulations shouldn’t be changed,” he said. “Land use takes place over generations. It shouldn’t be a knee-jerk decision that changes from year to year.”

Brooks countered that the proposal is meant to protect surrounding conservation lands and wetlands from development.

Even if the change were adopted, Campion’s variances would continue to be valid, he said.

“If we’re not going to consider changes a landowner isn’t in agreement with, then we don’t need a Master Plan,” Brooks told the Planning Board. “We certainly don’t need a future land use map.”

Ultimately, the board decided to recommend the Etna Road change.

The Lebanon City Council will review all of the proposed zoning amendments during a work session on Jan. 3.

A public hearing also will be held on Jan. 17 to discuss the proposals.

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

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