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Veterans Council chairman warns Alton classifying American Legion as commercial enterprise may have statewide effect

Union Leader Correspondent

May 22. 2018 9:05PM
More than 50 people filled the second-floor meeting room at Alton Town Hall on Monday to voice concerns about a decision by the code enforcement officer declaring the local American Legion post a commercial function facility under the zoning ordinance. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

ALTON — The chairman of the state Veterans Council warned Alton selectmen Monday it would set a statewide precedent if the town classifies the local American Legion post as a commercial entity under the zoning ordinance.

(Click here to view today's related editorial, "Zoning out: Leave the Legion alone.")

More than 50 people packed the second-floor meeting room.

“We appreciate the audience tonight, and I do believe it’s the biggest one we’ve ever had,” said Selectman John Markland, vice chairman of the board.

The turnout was sparked by an administrative decision by code enforcement officer John Dever III classifying the Legion’s hall at 164 Wolfeboro Highway as a commercial function facility, citing the longstanding practice of the building being rented for celebrations of life and other events.

Dever directed the Legion to submit a site plan review application to the Planning Board, and says the organization also will need a special exception from the Zoning Board to operate a commercial function facility.

Jim Adams, head of the New Hampshire Veterans Council, was direct in his remarks.

“This type of action would be precedent-setting, and we would suggest that (local post officials) move all the way up to their national office,” Adams said. “This is the wrong path for the town to go down.”

“The timing couldn’t be any worse for this as we prepare to honor those who have given up all their tomorrows,” Adams said. “It’s counter-productive to all the good things they do. It’s like Washington crossing the Delaware and being told ‘Oh no, you have to crawl into this boat.’”

Resident Dave Hussey said the American Legion has served the community for more than 50 years, assisting veterans and funding scholarships, and is now being threatened with court action by the town.

Hussey rejected the determination by the code enforcement officer that the Legion has expanded its operations, telling selectmen there was no baseline to support the assertion.

The organization’s charter specifies that it is solely a charitable group and is classified by the town as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, a classification now at odds with Dever’s determination that the lodge is a commercial function facility.

Post Commander Martin Chabot said the Legion’s mission is based on charitable work for veterans and the community, and he added the Legion donated $10,000 for uniforms for the Prospect Mountain High School Band, he said.

“We feel this is politically driven and don’t understand what the benefit is to have to spend money we don’t have. We can hardly pay our own bills,” Chabot said.

Loring Carr said he was the selectmen’s representative to the Planning Board when the commercial facilities ordinance was adopted. Its origins were in complaints by neighbors when a residential property began being used as a wedding venue and there were no guidelines to control it.

“It was never the intent or spirit of the ordinance for it to be applied in this manner or to churches,” Carr said.

Holding up a 2012 town report that lists the American Legion as being property-tax exempt, Carr told the board the building inspector is now classifying them as commercial.

“I have to quote an American classic. As Gilligan said to the skipper, ‘Uh, oh,’” he said, drawing applause from the audience.

Tim McDonald, a lifelong resident of Alton, said the Legion property has been used in the same manner since it was Edgewood restaurant 20 years ago.

Resident Martin Cornelissen offered a historical perspective, that the Grand Army of the Republic predated the Legion in Alton and its original quarters still stand just across the street.

“They fought and died for this town and their names are on the monument right out front. The Legion is doing the same thing. Nothing has changed, they are a tax-exempt nonprofit. They’ve just carried on a tradition. They are part of this town,” he said.

Following the meeting, Chabot said the Planning Board approved a motion on May 15 to allow the Legion to appear on the board’s June 19 agenda without having to file an application.

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