Putting aside for the moment concerns about potential costs involved in expanding their century-old library, Edgartown residents yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favor of purchasing an adjacent property.
Acquisition of the Captain Warren House for $3.5 million clears a critical hurdle for the expansion plan of the library's board of trustees. With a 438 to 172 vote, town residents authorized the spending plan originally approved in a special town meeting Tuesday night. Library trustees hope to use the historic North Water street property to move forward with a plan to expand on their current site.
"The people have spoken, and we're thrilled to have their support," said Diane Bongiorno, a member of the board of trustees and chairman of the library planning committee. "Now we can roll up our sleeves and get to work."
Town clerk Wanda Williams called the turnout "excellent for a special vote," with 610 registered voters, or 21 per cent, participating in the Proposition 2 1/2 override.
Pending sale of the property, put on the market earlier this spring by its owner, Burke Ross, presented the only chance for library expansion at its present address. The trustees submitted a $3.5 million bid to Mr. Ross earlier in the summer. Last month, negotiations were finalized, and just last week a purchase and sales agreement between Mr. Ross and the board was signed and delivered to Gerret Conover, Mr. Ross' real estate broker. Yesterday's vote means the town will now finalize the sale.
With the property secured, the next step for the trustees is to create a timeline for the library plan's development, something Mrs. Bongiorno says will happen in the coming weeks. "We are also going to begin interviewing potential architects, begin our fund raising efforts and start immediately working on grant proposals," she said. "We have a lot to do."
Mrs. Bongiorno couldn't give any concrete estimate on a possible groundbreaking for the new building, given the many steps needed to win town approval of the facility's final design and the funds needed to be raised. But she was hopeful construction could begin sometime in 2005 if the trustees secured money from a first round of grants, which will be submitted as early as next month. She said fund raising drives for private donations would commence soon.
At the special town meeting Tuesday, voters showed up at the Edgartown School in droves to hear the board's plan for expansion and approve the proposed appropriation. A quorum of 145 was reached quickly as town residents continued to stream into the gymnasium past the 7:30 p.m. start time. Over 300 people, more than 10 per cent of Edgartown voters, attended the meeting, an extraordinary turnout, Ms. Williams said.
A few small housekeeping fiscal items passed without debate.
The only non-fiscal items on the warrant were votes on aspects of the Patriot Act. One, a resolution opposing the act, passed by voice vote. The second, a proposed bylaw, would have instructed town employees to ignore the act, and town counsel Ronald Rappaport recommended against passage. The crowd then voted against that article.
But it was the library's procurement of the Captain Warren property that was at center stage, and it monopolized the meeting's discourse. Both advocates and opponents split time at the podium for over an hour before approving the article in a 201-39 vote, well above the two-thirds vote needed.
Edgartown board of assessors member Laurence Mercier opened the public discussion by expressing serious doubts in the proposed cost of the expansion, saying the math used in calculating potential state grants to aid in the construction of an enlarged facility was skewed.
He argued that a grant would amount to about $800,000, instead of the board's figure of $3.8 million, and predicted an eventual town bailout of construction costs. He suggested moving the library to a different location, a measure that he believed would save the town money. "I think the old Edgartown School building is a more appropriate location," he said.
He later proposed an amendment that would absolve the town of any future expenditure towards library expansion, but the effort was voted down.
Mr. Mercier wasn't the only one concerned with the proposal's price tag. "There are going to be additional costs," echoed Pam Dolby, who was surprised by the swiftness with which the project had emerged before the town. "Never have I seen a capital project come through on a petition. Why haven't there been public hearings? There should have been more public input," she said.
Bob Carroll agreed, arguing that the project was being rammed through without enough consideration. "This is a hastily contrived and poorly planned presentation," he said.
But proponents of the article acted quickly to shift the focus of the debate from the cost of the eventual expansion to the issue immediately at hand: whether to buy the Captain Warren House. Mort Fearey, chairman of the finance committee, tried to mollify worried voters by reminding the electorate that they were not voting on the proposed expansion. "Before anything is built, the library must come back to town meeting for a vote," he said.
"The property is available now," Edgartown librarian Debby MacInnis reminded voters. "How often is a piece of property next to the library going to be available?"
Supporters also expressed the importance of keeping the library at its North Water street address.
"There are concerns about downtown vitality," planning board chairman Alison Cannon said. "This plan will fit in with downtown."
"The human investment, that's what's most important," Justin Weiner added, "and this is a wonderful opportunity to keep that investment in the center of town."
The library board of trustees submitted an extensive PowerPoint presentation detailing its plans preceding the discussion. Mrs. Bongiorno, along with library director Ann Tyra and committee members Tony Bongiorno and Richard Fenn, illustrated the existing Carnegie building's lack of space and obsolete facilities.
"We have a crisis situation," Mrs. Bongiorno said. "The present size of our library building is inadequate to meet the needs of our community today, much less the demand of the future generations."
Mr. Bongiorno stressed that the Captain Warren House expansion plan and design concept was a response to a needs assessment for turning the existing facility into a modern library. "Fortunately, this plan fits into the library's needs assessment," he said. "But it is just a starting point."
Finance advisory committee chairman Jane Dooley said she was bothered by the suddenness of the vote and said the town needed more time. She and fellow committee member Fred Condon agreed on that point, but split on how the town should proceed. "All we need to do here is allow for the appropriations of $3.5 million," Mr. Condon said, "and I think that is reasonably prudent to procure this property."
After the vote, Mr. Bongiorno said he had been unsure how it would turn out. "It was a little edgy there for a minute," he said. "I was confident, but you just never know."