Debate over future of Rockport Public Library: Expand on-site or build on former school land

Fri, 07/26/2013 - 10:15pm

ROCKPORT — If one thing is certain about the future of Rockport Public Library, talk about its future will go on for some time. Following a well-attended workshop July 23 of the Select Board and Rockport Library Committee, expanding the library at its current site will be explored again, an option in a topic not without controversy.

Town Planner William Najpauer told the 100-plus residents who attended the meeting that it is possible — purely from a zoning perspective — to increase the footprint of the library into the 1,800 square-foot triangular corner of its 15,000 square-foot lot because that triangle happens to sit in the town's downtown district. The downtown district allows almost 100 percent lot coverage. That triangular corner abuts Limerock Street and is now partially designated as a handicapped parking area.

The library property sits on the corner of Russell Avenue, Limerock and Union streets. It is on a small piece of land once called the Tavern Lot and was deeded to the town in 1943 by philanthropist Mary Louise Bok for $1 specifically to be used for library purposes. The lot now lies in two of the town’s zoning districts: downtown and shoreland overlay. It is the shoreland overlay by virtue of its being adjacent to Lily Pond Brook, which runs down from Lily Pond to the harbor.

Najpauer told the committee, select board and residents at the July 23 meeting that it is also possible, within zoning parameters, to expand the library's footprint, or add another level there (with an ADA-compliant elevator), if the town votes to include libraries on the list of conforming uses. Currently, a library in this shoreland overlay district is not a conforming use. To make it conforming would require a town vote.

The Select Board is meeting with the Ordinance Review Committee July 30 and it is anticipated that the board will task that committee with crafting language for the November ballot asking voters if they want to make the library a conforming use. Additionally, Library Committee members will attend the August meeting of the Select Board to talk about next steps.

“It’s clear that we need to take a few steps back in order to move forward,” said Rockport Town Manager Rick Bates, July 26. “That’s O.K.”

In order to get a zoning change on the November ballot, a Sept. 9 public hearing would need to be scheduled. And, the Select Board would first have to agree to place it on the ballot at its Aug. 12 regularly scheduled meeting.

Even if voters approved changing the use of the library to conforming, that won’t automatically result in a decision to expand the library at its current location. The process would open the doors, however, to more engineering and design studies of possibly expanding the footprint, and/or adding another level. The heigh limit is 34 feet.

Library Director Molly Larson said she would pursue another planning grant to help fund such a process, should the Select Board and Library Committee request her to do so.

 

A townwide process

Both points delivered by Nauipur on July 23 were music to the ears of citizens opposed to any notion of moving the library to other locations.

The workshop drew more than 100 residents to the downstairs meeting room of the Rockport Opera House. For the most part, the discussion was congenial and respectful; yet, there were bristling moments, as Library Committee members absorbed and deflected criticisms for proposing the town move the library from the center of Rockport Village to the former Rockport Elementary School site on West Street, a site that is still in the village confines, but at the corner of routes 1 and 90.

Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, Library Committee Chairwoman Kathleen Meil told the crowd that the committee was not one path, and had, at one point in the process, dedicated resources from its $15,000 Davis Family grant to exploring expansion of the existing library on its current site.

"We are not the Committee in Favor of Building a New Library on the RES Site," she said. "We are the Library Committee."

As the committee, whose members are elected by citizens at the polls, its responsibility is to meet the needs of "you in this room, and those not in the room," she said.

She said library meetings are open to the public, though the public rarely attends them, and encouraged citizens to get involved.

"Up to a month ago, it was crickets," she said.

The Rockport Public Library has posted at its website documents, plans and FAQs to inform the public about the process the Library Committee embarked on to explore the library’s future.

A negative ambience earned a response from Meil: "I see you shaking your head and it breaks my heart."

She said after the meeting that she felt at the time that the integrity of the committee was being challenged by the assumption that: “we're pursuing a particular plan rather than trying in earnest to meet the needs of the entire community. Very few of the people who say the Library Committee won't listen have ever come to speak with us.

Bates said at the meeting: “It’s very important to get out that the Library Committee is going on the information they had at the time and the decisions were made on the information given at the time. When we came in, we spent hours and hours looking into it, and realized this is the subject of a meeting all by itself. The work that the Library Committee has done has been based on the interpretation of zoning as given. It is the answer we have. The library committee is made up of good people.”

At issue is how to expand a tightly-configured library to accomodate the increasing number of programs, books and resources. The original section of the library was first built in 1949 on the property donated by Bok. It was expanded in 1995, and air-conditioning was installed several years later. According to the library committee, the library – which serves 100-plus people a day, on average – has outgrown its current configuration.

In a statement of need produced in April 2012, the committee and library Director Molly Larson wrote that the library, although a “busy, lively and friendly place,” it is under-serving teens and young adults in the community, that it lacks a quiet study area and adequate seating. The library’s collection has filled all space, forcing regular weeding to allow new materials that are in high demand.

Children’s story times are crowded and there are waiting lists for after-school story time.Children are turned away due to lack of space, the statement said.

Furthermore, there is one bathroom, and often a wait to use the facilities, the statement said. The library lacks adequate workspace, including that which serves computers, and there is no public space to use for certain programs, such as tax help. Parking is limited to town streets with one handicapped parking space on the library property.

To address those needs, Larson pursued a $15,000 Davis Family grant in 2010, and received funding for a feasability study. That resulted in focus groups, analysis, and a subsequent design for possibly moving the library to the town-owned RES site on West Street. That site was relinquished to the town from School Administrative District 28 when the Camden-Rockport Elementary School was relocated further west on West Street (Route 90).

Architects produced the plans for a new 14,000 square-foot library, attaching a price tage of $3 million to $5 million. (See schematic renderings here)

“A portion would go out to bond, but as much as one-half to two-thirds would be raised through fundraising activities, matching grants and private donations,” a document entitled “Future Planning at the Rockport Public Library reads.

If such a plan were ever to be approved, the land on which the existing library sits would revert back to the heirs of Mary Louise Bok, and who are scattered about the country, said Bates, July 26.

 

Group opposing move files petition

Concurrently to that design’s development, opposition to moving the library arose. A petition bearing 112 signatures was presented to the Select Board July 23 by Rockport resident Jim Ruddy. The petition reads: “I (a Rockport, Maine, resident or non-resident Rockport Library patron) agree that we should keep the Rockport Public Library at its present location and that we should make reasonable improvements to the building. Note: This petition is in response to the Rockport Public Library Committee’s proposal to build a new $5 million, 14,000 square-foot library at the former RES site on West Street.”

At the workshop, skeptics and opponents were vocal in their questioning of both the reasoning behind the proposed move, and its wisdom.

“This is good news for everybody that we have options for building on the site,” said Ruddy.

He pointed out that the existing library building is 3,200 square feet in size, and the triangle piece of immediately available land is 1,800 square feet.

As the meeting continued, residents weighed in with questions and comments, which were recorded by Larson. (See below for complete list)

Library Committee members also spoke. Stephanie Kumble told the room that what was missing in the discussion, “is what is a library, what is library service, who is it for, and is it accessible for an entire town?”

She suggested the town look at what the Rockport Public Library is, and what it will be.

“It’s for everyone, and to be easily accessible,” she said. “We need to get back to that rationale of why we are doing that. It’s not about a building.”

Others also commented on the changing face of libraries, and what they might look like in 10 years.

Will there be more books, or will there be more Kindle downloads, asked one resident.

Others questioned what Rockport Village would be if the library moved out, combining that with the pullout of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, which is relocating to downtown Rockland.

Resident Paul Charbonneau suggested the town create another committee to look at the feasibility of expanding the existing library.

Rockport resident and architect John Priestley cautioned that it can be economically unsustainable to develop a building more. And, he said, the town needs to take into account that if the library is expanded on-site, then its collections and operations have to move while construction is under way.

Another resident suggested that the situation had produced “different paths and different stories and biographies. What impact do they have on is? Everyone is exceedingly smart in this room, yes. Some of the talk is at a small level.”

He asked that at the next meeting diagrams be presented on a white board.

“Otherwise it’s just words,” he said.

Select Board member and moderator Geoffrey Parker said: “We all have to live together. There is not just one particular path. There is no rush to takeit  to the polls.”

 

Questions relayed to the committee and select board by citizens July 23 included:

  1. Does the town have any feel for how the DEP will rule in regards to a request to change the library to a permissible activity under shoreland zoning?
  2. Is it logical that a zoning ordinance change could be on the ballot in November?
  3. How is it that a library that was built in 1949 and been used as a library is not grandfathered into a permissible activity as part of the current ordinance?
  4. How will the grossly inadequate parking be addressed (should the library remain in the current location)?
  5. Have other sites been considered?
  6. Could the current site be used as an annex to the library, thus solving the issue of the Bok deed?
  7. What would the effect on staffing be with an annex or multi-level or multi-place library?
  8. Why can’t the library expand up at the current site?
  9. Has the library committee considered the role of the downtown vs RES site as a public facility?
  10. What are the other current proposals for the RES site?  The location of the library and RES should not be considered independently.
  11. What is the vision for the RES site, if not a library/community space/ball field?
  12. Would the new location for the library be a positive draw for the community, helping to grow Rockport and creating a legacy of positive development?
  13. Has the CMCA location been considered?
  14. What can the town afford in terms of a new library?
  15. Can another grant be applied for to complete a professional study of the site?
  16. How would we pay for an engineering study of the current location?
  17. Can the town have more information on the size of the proposed new structure?
  18. What are the usage statistics and is there more recent information?
  19. Can there be a sub-committee to explore parallel ideas and explore both sites fully?
  20. What information took the committee from on-site to off -site as a recommendation?
  21. What are the next steps and could a timeline be established?
  22. We are just coming off a major recession…the committee is proposing millions of dollars and additional costs, what is the reasoning behind such a large expansion?
  23. How soon could there be a public hearing on zoning changes?
  24. Restaurants are opening in town and have no problem with parking, so why does the library?
  25. Can the Memorial Park be used as parking or expansion of the library?

 

 Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 706-6657