The Rockport Select Board knew it wasn’t going to be easy in making the decision of where to build a new library, as well as estimating its cost and size. Add other factors, such as the recent offer by a group of Rockport citizens to raise money to buy an abutting piece Limerock Street property and donate it to the cause, and then the possibility of workforce housing getting constructed near the RES site on West Street, add even more dimensions to the final deliberations.
But the time has come for that, and on Tuesday evening, Feb. 21, beginning at 7 p.m., the board will begin talking amongst themselves about the future of the municipal library, one of the biggest issues to land before the town in decades.
The clock is ticking and the goal is to have a new library proposal before voters by June Town Meeting. The Feb. 21 workshop will result in no votes, nor will public comments be entertained. It will be streamed live.
The board will convene Feb. 27 for a regularly scheduled meeting and public comments will be invited. And then, the board will meet again, according to Board Chairman Bill Chapman, on Feb. 28 when the board will make its final library decision and vote.
Since January, the board has held multiple meetings with engineers and architects, citizen fundraisers, landscapers and contractors, consultants and library staff, spending long hours in conversation about the two possible sites — 1 Limerock Street, the location of the existing library, and the former Rockport Elementary School site, on West Street — for a new library.
The debate has been ongoing for more than four years, and the general discussion about rebuilding or expanding the town’s library underway in some form since 2003, or even before that.
The most recent proposal that went before voters in November 2016 to build a new library at 1 Limerock Street failed by nine votes.
The Select Board then decided it was on the shoulders of town leadership, the Select Board itself, to come up with a new plan.
The board is taking its role seriously, and their questions to those who have taken seats at the table have been frank and probing. They have pressed for understanding, and have pushed the discussions broadly into a variety of topics, touching even on social justice and planning for public institutions.
The community has verbalized distinct opinions about both sites, and their positions reflect a town that comprises five neighborhood centers (Rockville, West Rockport, Simonton Corner, Glen Cove and the Village).
The have debated where the Village and the Rockport “Downtown” boundaries begin and end, and the opinions are as varied as the citizens themselves.
Last week, the board heard from the last of their invited consultants, landscape architect Terry DeWan, of Yarmouth (who Skyped into the meeting), planner Jane Lafleur, of Camden, Rockport’s staff planner Jamie Francomano, and Rockport Assessor Kerry Leichtman. (Watch the Feb. 15 workshop here.)
The board also heard from an informal group of Rockport residents which has proposed to raise money and donate it to the town to buy a house next door to the existing library site at 1 Limerock Street. That proposal includes having designated engineers and architects produce a library design, pro bono, for the town, for those two combined lots.
Buy house next door, tear it down, use land for library project
The group, consisting of Alex Armentrout, Sally Cook, and Nick Ruffin, are offering to raise $442,000 to purchase 3 Limerock Street. They began negotiating with the property owners, the family of Joanna Scott, last year, and signed a contract to purchase the 7,362-square-foot lot and house, which was built in 1850.
The six-month contract ends Aug. 1.
“The goal is to raise all funds required for this purchase, privately,” said Armentrout, at the meeting. “While that may not prove possible, a good start has been made toward this goal. Obviously, if all funds are not raised privately, public funds may be required to complete the purchase. We do not expect that to happen.”
A group of professionals has been assembled to help with the project, Armentrout said.
“A team of local architects and engineers stands ready to prepare, at no cost to the town, design drawings for a small library, less costly than the proposal voted on last November,” said Armentrout. “This team awaits direction from the Select Board as to the parameters of this building.”
That team includes Engineer Will Gartley; architects Mazie Cox, Brink Thorne, Justin Smith, Geoff James and Stephen Smith; builders Allen Mitchell and Tom Albertson; and library consultants Ben Blackmon, Evelyn Greenlaw and Terry DeWan.
Armentrout said the team would build off of the work already completed by architects Reed and Company, and the ad hoc library committee.
“This group will not attempt to reinvent the project,” he said.
Armentrout said new drawings would be completed by the Smith architects, and that the addition of the Scott property to the library site would not be just for a parking lot.
“We wanted to do something that had more universal appeal,” he said.
He estimated the new library design would cost approximately $3 million. The last library construction proposal carried a $4 million price tag.
Both Select Board members Ken McKinley and Brendan Riordan asked Armentrout to clarify further the terms of pro bono.
Would the team take the work load up to the ballot, asked McKinley, with a layout, elevations and parking area delineated.
“Would they get as far as we got with Reed and Company at the last incarnation,” asked McKinley.
“Yes,” said Armentrout.
Riordan asked if there would be any deed restrictions.
Armentrout said the group would raise the money, and give it to the town to buy the property. There would be no restrictions, other than the donors would be giving in good faith that the property would be used for the municipal library project.
Camden attorney Paul Gibbons, who is representing the group in purchasing the Scott property, and Armentrout said the gift to the town would be predicated on the town committing to using it for the library project.
They said it would expected that the town would put the final design and engineering job out to bid, per town policy.
Armentrout said the design would be in accordance with the vision of the Select Board.
“The Select Board is not going to put a design on the ballot that they don’t think is acceptable,” said Armentrout.
“What are we accepting, exactly,” asked Riordan, later in the meeting.
Armentrout responded, if the Select Board decides to build at 1 Limerock Street, and the money is raised to buy 3 Limerock Street, then the town would accept a contract with the Rockport group, take the money and buy the Scott property.
And, he said, the engineers and architects would produce plans to “meet the guidelines set by the Select Board.”
Objections to the Scott house proposal
But there were citizens at the Feb. 15 meeting who took exception to the offer made by the Rockport group. Judy and Don Flock, who live at 5 Limerock Street, both said they opposed the purchase.
Judy Flock said the tear-down of yet another historic property in Rockport would be a travesty.
“With each demolition, the character of harbor changes,” she said. “A parking lot is a poor replacement.”
She said the money raised could be better used going toward site preparation, lighting and construction of a new library.
The Scott house at 3 Limerock Street was built in 1850, and is of an antique design, according to its tax card at the town office.
Don Falk said: “I think how you plan to modify the scott property will degrade my property. Having a parking lot 16 feet from my bedroom window is not something terribly desirable. The older Mainers would be ashamed of us complaining about people walking a block to pick up a book.”
He also said that the land in the back of Scott house, as well as his and the library, slopes to the Lily Pond Brook, which runs from Lily Pond and empties at the harbor.
“It is a treasure,” he said. “I’m going to have several thousand feet of blacktop, with people coming and going all the time. It is a travesty.”
Armentrout responded: “I don’t disagree with what Judy has said in respect to sanctity of historic properties.”
But, he said, the Scott property project has been brought to the fore in an effort to deal with what a certain number of people have identified as the problem at 1 Limerock Street.
“This group has taken this effort to make 1 Limerock street the spot where the library should remain,” he said. “We can’t have it both ways. Either the parking problem is dealt with, or it isn’t a problem, and is dealt with.”
Resident Bob Baldwin said he conducted his own informal parking survey by walking around the neighborhood. There are 59 sites within easy walking distance of the library site, he said.
Mary Ann Young, who lives on the other side of the brook, abutting the library site, on Russell Ave., also opposed to the Scott acquisition for parking.
“Think long and hard about this gift,” she said. “It’s actively tearing down a Greek Revival, and another home torn down in the Village. You would leave a void of history, beauty and the character of the town.”
She said the Lily Pond Brook area behind the homes is a sanctuary for wildlife and is a flyway for birds.
Planners lean toward 1 Limerock Street
The three planners at the Feb. 16 meeting were favoring the existing library site in downtown Rockport, over the RES land. The latter reverted to municipal ownership after School Administrative District 28 vacated the elementary school and purchased the former Montessori School one-half mile west on the same road. There, the taxpayers funded a school expansion and the former RES school was demolished three years ago.
The four-acre RES land sits open, awaiting re-use.
Both sites have complicated soil issues — at RES, it is wet, but not so wet that prohibits construction of a public institution there, the Select Board said. And at 1 Limerock Street, there is granite ledge, but not so extensive that it encumbers foundation work there.
The planners were skeptical that a library at RES would serve as a catalyst for more development there. They argued against relocating civic buildings away from the downtown.
Rockport’s post office remains on Union Street, just up the road from the old library.
The town’s fire station, which used to be in the old CMCA building, across the street from the library, was moved out of the village to Main Street to the public safety building there, close to the intersection of Route 1.
And the town office, which used to be in the public safety building, was relocated to its new home in the early 1990s, on the corner of Route 1 and Main Street.
The old Rockport High School, on Franklin Street, was closed when Camden and Rockport combined their high schools, now located on Route 90, west of the elementary school, near the Marge Jones recreational ballfields.
The old Rockport High School is now condominiums.
Planner Jane Lafleur said walkability matters, and it would be more likely that library users would drive to the RES site, as opposed to walking there.
“If you plan for people and places, you will get people and places,” she said. “If you plan for cars and traffic, you will get traffic and cars.”
The town has extended the sidewalk along West Street to the corner of Route 1, with the anticipation of extending a pathway further west toward the schools on Route 90.
Landscape architect Terry DeWan said the RES site has high visibility and accessibility, but “does it serve as a catalyst for the future? Could you see another center of activity?”
He then questioned the effect of moving the library from the downtown on the village functions.
He regarded the existing library as the termination point of the harbor vista, and that people go to the library, and then do multiple other activities while they are downtown. The library, he said, maintains the cultural core intact.
To Rockport planner Francomano, the issue boils down to providing a low-risk, high-reward result, and to achieve that, the library should remain at 1 Limerock Street.
“The village center location is superior to RES on every metric I think of,” he said.
Select Board member Mckinley asked the planners about the relevance of the new sidewalk connection to Route 90, and more pedestrian access to that site than was what was noted.
Would that enhance the potential for expanding the village, and enhancing development along Pascal Ave., he asked.
“Is there a possIbility it could produce catalyst for future development,” he asked.
“Building a sidewalk doesn’t mean you will have pedestrians there,” said Lafleur. “The reason people use sidewalks is because they have places to go to and from.”
“Would a library promote development there,” asked McKinley.
“It could,” said Lafleur. “Maybe.”
“I haven’t heard anyone speak about social justice,” said Select Board member Riordan.
He questioned the extent to which the town would go to concentrate opportunity and resources “where those things are already concentrated.”
A significant portion of the library users are varied, and already drive to the library, he said.
“Does that element come into play with your consideration with your planning,” he asked. “And how should it?”
Francomano replied: “It’s a very difficult issue.”
But, he concluded, “the downtown is a gold mine that needs some public investment for the benefit of the whole community.”
“Social justice, availability of public spaces, affordability, it’s always a concern,” said Lafleur. “I still think that if you want to put your public dollars your best investment is where you get your most bang for the buck, and that is in the centers.”
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