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Lawsuit now likely on Boxford library

Selectmen, zoning board clash over project

By David Cogger
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2011
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The Boxford Board of Selectmen has voted to challenge in court a decision by the Zoning Board of Appeals that threatens plans to build a $4.4 million public library, breathing life into a disputed project that has galvanized residents in the small, upscale town.

Ultimately, a judge will decide the fate of the library project, which was stalled when one member of the zoning board voted against the plan. When the appeal goes forward, the Board of Selectmen will be represented by town counsel, while the zoning board must retain outside counsel.

Boxford taxpayers will foot the bill for all of the legal fees.

At a meeting of the zoning board held late last month, chairman Bill Cargill cast the lone dissenting vote against granting a special permit required for the library project to move forward. Approval of the special permit required a unanimous vote by the three-member board.

Cargill cited concerns with the size of the building relative to its 3.37-acre lot and potential problems with lighting and parking. But he offered no suggestions to address the specific concerns, according to a letter the library trustees submitted to selectmen.

“I stand by my decision,’’ Cargill told a packed house at the Nov. 14 Board of Selectmen meeting. “We [the Zoning Board of Appeals] do have the authority. We are charged with protecting the neighborhood.

“I am pro-library,’’ he said. “I am just opposed to the plan that was before us.’’

Plans for the 18,500-square-foot library, which would be in the heart of the historic district, have been in the works for several years. But they began in earnest in 2009 when the Board of Trustees organized a team to look at ways to build a new facility while being sensitive to neighbors and the need to maintain the historic look and feel of the village.

After working with the Board of Health and the Conservation Commission and getting input from the Historic District Commission and an architectural firm, library trustees presented voters with a plan, which was approved at Town Meeting and at a townwide election in the fall of 2010.

Although Cargill’s vote has drawn fire from a number of sources, including Kathleen O’Sullivan-Fortin and Richard Corsetti - both of whom resigned from the zoning board before the Oct. 27 meeting officially adjourned - some residents appear to share Cargill’s concerns.

Carl Peterson said the town should not ruin the village in order to get a satisfactory library. “With the present design, the library trustees and the architects took too little time considering the visual impact of the library,’’ he said.

The plan calls for a large expansion of the present library structure that would make use of an existing historic home, create more parking spaces, and add enough room to house the library’s entire collection, currently shelved in the main library and at an annex across town. When library patrons request a book, sometimes the librarian has to drive across town to the annex to retrieve it.

The plan includes a computer room and expanded adult and children’s facilities and meets standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, a requirement to obtain 40 percent in state matching funds from the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners. Estimates to bring the library into ADA compliance are in excess of $2 million, according to the library board.

Selectmen opened the floor to residents to sound off on plans for the library as well as the zoning board’s denial of the special permit

“Whether or not you agree, we voted on this,’’ said Susan Howell, referring to the Town Meeting and election results. “How one person can derail a decision of a majority, I do not understand. I feel like my vote doesn’t count.’’

In a four-page letter that she read to the Board of Selectmen, Heidi Ellard, chairwoman of the library Board of Trustees, said that although it would be impossible for a plan to be embraced by 100 percent of Boxford residents, the majority of town voters approved the project as planned. She went on to say that there is no guarantee that a new plan for a smaller building between 10,000 and 12,000 square feet, a size favored by Cargill, would comply with building codes and ADA standards

Ellard also pointed out that if the project were to come to a halt, the town would be forced to pay back any grant funding to the state with interest. At this time, the sum is approximately $800,000, of which the town has spent about $300,000 on preliminary studies and planning. In addition, she said the town would lose the entire $2.7 million in grant funding for the project.

“And worse yet, we will have no new library and no funding mechanism to support a new plan,’’ Ellard said.

After nearly 90 minutes of public discussion, selectmen adjourned for an executive session and reappeared about an hour later to vote in open meeting.

In a voice vote, members Preston Galarneau, Charles Costello, and Stephen Davis favored appealing the zoning board decision in court. Chairman Peter Perkins and Mary Anne Nay voted against.

Galarneau, Davis, and Costello said that although they each favored a different plan for a new library, the value of the majority vote should trump their personal feelings.

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