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Repost: Residents want housing ruled out for library site

December 30, 2011

According to The Walpole Times, a library re-use committee has proposed demolishing the old Walpole Public Library. This represents the latest development in the ongoing saga regarding the old library. I look forward to blogging about this in January, after the committee presents their idea to the Board of Selectmen.

Here is a re-post of a blog post published on August 24, 2011 regarding a meeting Selectmen had held with residents of the library neighborhood. Selectmen seemed very unprepared at that meeting and I hope their January 3 meeting about this is better:

Just hours after town officials announced that affordable housing would, as many feared, be built at the Walpole Woodworkers property on East Street, residents made clear to Selectmen last night there is little appetite for affordable housing of any type at the current Walpole library site on Common Street.

The Board of Selectmen held their first ever public discussion with residents of the area around the library last night, seeking their input on what the best use for the facility is once the new library opens a block away. The meeting was very well-attended, with the meeting room almost standing room only. Even residents who live further down Lewis Avenue and Common Street, not directly next to the library, were in attendance. Judging by the high turnout, the level of interest in this issue is clearly high.

[Full Disclosure: I live across from the library on Lewis Avenue. I can definitively say virtually every one of my neighbors was there as were many residents from down the street.]

Selectmen suggested at the beginning of the meeting that an option for the site is housing, possibly senior housing or affordable housing of another type.

A study commissioned by the Walpole Housing Authority late last year showed that senior housing would be cost-prohibitive in a community that has such an aversion to overrides. But the Housing Partnership asked one of their members, Bernie Goba, who is also an architect, to voluntarily, at no cost to the town, draw up alternate plans for housing at that location. Goba presented the plans to the Board and residents for the first time last night but the overall sentiment in the room from residents was that they did not want affordable housing there.

Board Chairman Eric Kraus emphasized repeatedly that the meeting was the first time town officials have had the opportunity to discuss the issue with residents, and he noted that there is still a lot of work remaining in exploring possible options for the site.

That in itself is the troubling part. The override vote for a new library occurred in June 2009. Everyone in Walpole knew then that the library would inevitably be vacated. But for the last two years since that vote, Selectmen have done little to seriously discuss the issue. The library is just a few months away from being vacated, and yet the issue is only being discussed with residents for the first time now.

At this rate, the building is likely to remain vacant for at least a year, possibly two years and possibly longer. The resulting effects of an abandoned town building of this type for that long are numerous and negative.

During the two years since the library override vote occurred and we knew the library would become vacant, Selectmen stated at last night’s meeting that:

1. Not one town official has even taken a look at the deed for the library site to determine whether any deed restrictions exist. This should have been done years ago, before the new library was even being proposed.

Although very unlikely but still very possible, Town Administrator Michael Boynton suggested that there could be a deed restriction that the site can only remain a library. If that is a real possibility as Boynton suggested, this should have been checked years ago when a new library was being proposed. This could be a serious problem but could have been resolved with a simple visit to the Registry of Deeds.

2. Although it has been suggested that the old library could be converted into additional town office space, Town Hall has not prioritized which municipal offices need more space for their operations. There is no hard list of how much additional square footage would be needed in any new facility, whether it be the old library or elsewhere.

Town Hall should have developed a list of department space needs years ago, since it could have been helpful as the town moves forward with deciding where to construct new buildings and which buildings to construct.

3. Not one town official has explored the costs of upgrading the handicapped accessibility at the old library.

Under the terms of the American Disability Act, once a building changes use, it must be upgraded to American Disability Act requirements if not already up to code. Since the entire Board of Selectmen and our Town Administrator knew this fact and knew as early as June 2009 that the library was moving out and therefore the building would be converted into another use, these costs should have been examined months ago. During the meeting, the Town Administrator was unable to come up with any specific estimates as to how much it would cost to upgrade the handicapped accessibility. He should have had these numbers a long time ago, even before a new library was proposed since that was one of the biggest reasons library advocates claimed a new facility was needed.

Residents overwhelmingly told Selectmen last night they prefer the site be used as a municipal use, such as municipal offices or as a senior center. One resident suggested the building could be torn down and turned into green space. Another asked whether a hybrid office building, split between municipal and commercial use, could be considered.

A few residents pointed out that the town has a history of selling off buildings that could have been useful in later years, as with the old Bird School in East Walpole and the old Fisher School in North Walpole that were both sold by the town in the 1980s. Residents urged Selectmen to rule out selling the library property because the town may regret that move later and the town would also lose control of the property.

Town Clerk Ron Fucile, who lives on Lewis Avenue although not directly next to the library, came to the podium and pointed out that Selectmen have the ability to put a non-binding ballot question before the voters as to what use they would want for the site. A question could be put on a town election ballot next year, for example, that would ask residents whether the site should stay as a municipal use.

Selectman Eric Kraus responded that a ballot question for all town residents may be unnecessary since people who don’t live anywhere near the library would therefore be weighing in on the issue and he felt it should be a neighborhood decision.

Kraus’ response indicates a “We are not one town” mentality that Town Hall should try to stay away from. We all live in Walpole and this property is owned by all of the taxpayers and residents. We should make decisions regarding its re-use together while still listening to the residents of the neighborhood. Of course the opinions of those not near the library should be considered when we move forward and decide what to do with the library. A ballot question is an excellent idea.

180 has suggested before that non-binding ballot questions should be used to gauge the opinion of the community. This approach should definitely be used to determine the desire of the community when deciding what to do with the library.

Kraus told residents he wants a committee to be formed, made up of a few residents of the neighborhood along with various town officials, to come up with a feasible plan for the library re-use.

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