Board of Appeals in Edgartown Turns Down Library Expansion

By IAN FEIN

The Edgartown zoning board of appeals this week denied a special permit for the Edgartown Free Public Library, effectively killing the proposed library expansion project for at least another four years.

Three of the five board members voted in opposition to the project, which would have connected the Carnegie library and recently purchased Captain Warren House by means of a 17,000-square-foot addition.

The permit, which would have allowed the library to alter and extend a preexisting nonconforming structure, required four votes in favor.

Detractors of the $11.5 million project argued it was too big for the downtown neighborhood and did not provide enough parking.

Library trustees, who last week received a conditional approval from the historic district commission and sailed through two votes at town meeting, were perplexed and dismayed by the zoning board's decision.

"I think it's more than a shame. It's a disaster that they would do that," said acting chairman of the library board of trustees Nancy Ambrose. "I'm very disappointed. I think it's unconscionable for three people to kill a project when the voters approved it and we had letters from the planning board, historic commission, police department, fire department and highway department."

"I am still very stunned that a board would go against the overwhelming support of the town," library director Ann Tyra said yesterday. "We don't know what we need to do at this point and are looking into our options. But as long as the zoning board maintains last night's ruling, the project is dead. The town of Edgartown voted a project, and it was killed by the ZBA."

Trustees applied for a $3.5 million state grant in February, but needed approval from various town boards and town meeting voters this spring to remain eligible for the money. Because of the zoning board's rejection, Edgartown's library project has now been forced to the back of the line for state funding.

In other words, the town will now have to wait to reapply for the grant until each of the 40 other library projects on the state's list receive funding.

Mrs. Tyra estimated it would be between four and five years before that happens. She said the additional delay and escalating construction and material costs may push the $11.5 million price tag even higher.

Trustees could try to fund the project without the state money, but no matter who pays for the expansion, it will still require zoning board approval.

At their public hearing Wednesday night, zoning board members appeared steadfast in their opposition to the proposed project.

"It's way too big for what we need in the town of Edgartown," board member John Magnuson said yesterday. "25,000 square feet for a library is quite large, and that really was my primary reason for voting against it."

Chairman Martin (Skip) Tomassian Jr. and board member Carol Grant, who also voted against the permit, chose not to explain their positions yesterday.

Board of selectmen chairman Margaret Serpa and former selectmen Lawrence Mercier both spoke against the project during the hearing. Mrs. Serpa did not return a call for comment.

Other zoning board members strongly supported the expansion design.

"I'm extremely disappointed this project isn't going forward," said zoning board member Richard Knight, who voted for the project along with Richard Colter Jr. "I think the decision is yet another example of the shortsightedness of the town in not rejuvenating its downtown. We don't have a post office, we don't have a drug store ... and the library will be another piece of the downtown that is going to disappear if we don't do something about it."

Mr. Knight said he believed the parking should have been a non-issue. The expansion design called for 10 spaces.

"A lot of libraries don't have any parking at all," Mr. Knight said. "It's a municipal building and a municipal activity. The whole town could be used as parking, or we could designate more."

Mrs. Tyra said that other towns in the commonwealth, similar in size to Edgartown, do not provide dedicated parking. She said the Vineyard Haven library has only two designated spots.

"The three people who voted against the project spoke of nothing but parking and size, and they never once asked a person who was connected with library for our reasons about the size," Mrs. Ambrose said yesterday, still audibly affected by the previous night's decision. "They could have asked any one of us why our programs demand that space."

Mrs. Tyra said the library's present collection contains approximately 38,000 items. To qualify for the state grant, she said, the town needed a building plan that accommodates 20 years of population growth.

"To scale back the size means we would have to scale back our services," Mrs. Tyra said. "The outside walls are driven by what's inside. We are the light downtown."

The trustees have not met since Wednesday's vote and have no plan about what to do with either the Carnegie Library or the Captain Warren House, purchased by the town for $3.5 million following a special town meeting and election last summer.

"A renovation [of the Warren House] would be outrageously expensive, and we don't have funding for that," Mrs. Tyra said. "We may use it for some small programs like book clubs or story hours, but in essence it will remain empty."

Mrs. Tyra acknowledged that the August purchase left trustees a relatively short window to complete the state grant application and get all the necessary town approvals. She said that since August the library spent roughly $165,000 developing the expansion design, which has now been effectively taken off the table.

The design underwent numerous revisions with the historic district commissioners this spring, who showed a willingness to work with the architect and trustees to develop a project which they all supported.

The zoning board, unlike the historic commission, does not traditionally continue its consideration of a project.

"This design took a tremendous amount of work from a great many people," Mrs. Ambrose said. "I feel badly for them, and I think the town has missed a good opportunity. Why shouldn't we have a building big enough to hold our library?"