Editorial: Save the Elks

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Lebanon’s financially beleaguered Elks Club is in survival mode these days, and many city residents hope they will be able to continue to do their good work. That would seem to augur well for city approval of the club’s bid to sell a parcel of land to Dartmouth Coach for overflow parking, thereby easing the club’s money troubles, which by all accounts threaten to put it out of business. But like many things in Lebanon regarding zoning and planning, there are bumps even when the road is straightforward.

On the plus side for the club, it’s operating with years of accumulated goodwill. Its newsletter lists some of the good deeds on the calendar even now: its annual CCBA Hoop Shoot, food drives, a clothing drive and a holiday party for veterans, a senior holiday party, a children’s Christmas party and a benefit dance. These are the sort of events on which fraternal organizations build a reputation. Given the widely perceived weakening of community ties in society, they certainly would be missed when they’re gone.

Dartmouth Coach, meanwhile, is a private business, but its growing success (requiring more parking space than it anticipated at its relatively new facility on Labombard Road) suggests it has provided a valued service to the Upper Valley with bus trips to Boston and New York City. Indeed, its rapid ascent is in sharp contrast with the grinding annual effort to keep commercial air service viable at the Lebanon Airport.

The Elks won approval in the fall to subdivide their 63 acres of land, which would allow them to sell a 7.6 acre parcel to Dartmouth Coach. But in November, a potential obstacle came to the fore: Lebanon’s planning department, acting in accordance with the city’s Master Plan, had just presented a number of proposed zoning changes to the City Council, including one to rezone the Elks property for high-density residential use.

While that may have seemed good in theory — although we have reservations about the desirability of residential use in a busy commercial and industrial area — there were obvious present-day complications. In late November, the Planning Board joined the Elks in opposing rezoning of the land, even as planning staff said rezoning wouldn’t necessarily kill the sale.

We think the people of Lebanon would want that sale to go through. Given the Elks’ financial difficulties, and the needed service Dartmouth Coach provides, it would be a shame if the City Council allows the planning process to put obstacles in the way.

Meanwhile, the situation points to the under-recognized importance of the Master Plan process. City officials work hard to get citizens involved in it, generally with limited success. Most people concentrate on the actual rather than the theoretical, which is why they side with the Elks they know rather than future uses they don’t. In this instance, that might work out for the best, but that might not always be the case. City residents would do well to pay more notice to the Master Plan in the future, and to accept all invitations to help shape it.