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Voting is moved for lack of access

Polling at Nipmuc to boost parking, too

For more than a hundred years, Upton residents have cast their ballots at Town Hall. Come Tuesday, though, that tradition ends: Voters will instead be lining up at Nipmuc Regional Middle/High School.

At the request of Town Clerk Kelly McElreath, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to change the town's polling location earlier this fall, after the state issued a report that deemed Town Hall inaccessible for voters with disabilities.

McElreath said the report noted the absence of handicapped-accessible bathroom stalls, areas without railings, and a lack of parking spaces, among other deficiencies. Two and a half years ago, Town Meeting was moved from Town Hall to Nipmuc for the same reasons.

But the problem, town officials say, is that it is hard to persuade residents to spend money to make the building more accessible, when the future of the Town Hall itself is uncertain.

Upton officials have discussed moving town offices to a larger facility. A recent proposal was made to incorporate municipal space into a plan by local developer Robert Henderson to build a mixed-use development on the site of the former town dump.

About two years ago, the subject of Town Hall's compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act came up, when a roughly $9 million Proposition 2 tax override -- part of which was earmarked for remodeling the town offices -- failed to win enough support among voters.

"It was just too big of an override," Selectwoman Joan Shanahan said.

The override would have allowed the town to raise taxes temporarily above the limit set by state law.

Another difficulty, Shanahan said, is the historic nature of Town Hall, which makes remodeling efforts more difficult. And, the limited size of the building causes concern about the amount of floor space that would be available even after changes were made.

But even if the building could be successfully overhauled, Shanahan and McElreath said, the lack of parking spaces poses an even bigger problem.

When Town Hall was built in 1884, the need for parking was not on the minds of those who designed the building and laid out the area. With roughly 10 spots available, voters often struggle to find on-street parking. Occasionally, residents have to park well down the road. By moving the voting to Nipmuc's gymnasium, the town will have more than five times that number of spaces.

Shanahan, who serves on the town's ADA committee, said residents approved spending $40,000 on various accessibility improvements almost two years ago, including changes made to the police station. But things are moving slower than would perhaps be ideal. "It's difficult to be totally in compliance, because we are really still a country town," she said.

Upton is hardly alone, though. The state survey of polling places, released this past summer by the Massachusetts Office on Disability, found that 60 percent of the state's 1,488 polling places failed to meet accessibility regulations. The western suburbs as a region fared better, but the area still has dozens of inaccessible polling places.

Anita Sundelin, the town's ADA grievance coordinator, said that while she has not heard any specific complaints about Town Hall as a polling location, the change has been welcomed by many. "The Town Hall is a very charming old building, but it isn't a particularly comfortable place for people," she said.

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