If it seems that Boxford has been discussing building a new public library for a long time, consider the perspective of Alan Benson, the town administrator.
“My first interaction with it was when I was 18, in 1978, and the issue was whether to build a central library or an addition,” he said. “We had one of our largest town meetings in history, up to that time. They agreed to hire a designer, and a month later a citizens initiative quashed the project.”
Thirty-five years later, debate about where and what kind of town library to build continues at the annual Town Meeting on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Masconomet Regional High School.
Residents will be asked to vote on two competing proposals — one for a new library, the other for a smaller-scale renovation and expansion.
The town library is 5,650 square feet and it includes the historic Cummings House and a 1980s addition.
The first proposal seeks $395,000 for design work on a new, 15,000-square-foot building on the site of the current library at 10 Elm St. The addition would be demolished and the house saved for an undesignated purpose.
The other plan seeks $350,000 for a 12,000-square-foot, single-story building that includes a renovated Cummings House and replacement of the current addition.
If either plan is successful, it would still need final approval from a future Town Meeting, with the funding expected to come from a debt exclusion override of Proposition 2½.
The first plan is sponsored by the Board of Library Trustees, and was previously brought before voters at a Special Town Meeting in February. The favorable vote, 280 to 200, fell short of the two-thirds majority support needed.
Proponents thought that holding the meeting in February was important for the construction timeline, said Heidi Ellard, chairwoman of the Board of Library Trustees, but they now believe scheduling it so close to school vacation week cost them supporters.
Ellard said the plan, which had been vetted by multiple committees and regulatory boards in town, was designed to minimize the effect on abutters and to fit within the East Village neighborhood.
“It accommodates all of the services and amenities that a modern community library offers,” Ellard said. “It accommodates all building code and handicapped-access requirements. It offers a design that fits the town and the village setting. It offers a flexible floor plan that can grow or change as the town’s needs change, without needing to add an extra wing or relocate services out of the building.”
The other article, placed by a citizens petition, was developed based on reviewing that plan and visits to other libraries, notably a new one in Boxborough, said Nancy Rohlfs, who is part of Boxford Concerned Citizens, which sponsored the citizens petition after the vote in February.
“We were thinking we needed to make some changes in order to get the library passed,” said Rohlfs. “A very important one was cost. The plan that the trustees put forward was $7 million, [and] the renovation of the [Cummings House] and maintenance was not included in that. That was important because it’s an unknown cost that the town would have to carry.”
The smaller, one-story building would be less expensive to build, include the historic house, and still be large enough to provide the services and programming of a modern library, she said.
“Basically, their plan failed only three months ago, and they didn’t make any changes to it,” she said. “Honestly, I think a lot of people were hoping that the library trustees would regroup and think through why their plan failed in the first place, but that didn’t happen.”
What both sides agree on is that the current library is inadequate, an idea that has enjoyed various levels of support for several years. Back in the late 1970s, when the town had two small libraries, the space crunch was solved with an addition to the Cummings House. Eventually, the second library was closed due to budget cuts.
In the late 1990s, when the town planned to build Town Hall on Spofford Road near the police station and an elementary school, consideration was given to building a library as well, although that plan was put aside because of permitting, conservation, and cost issues.
In 2004, the town received a state grant promising reimbursement of about $2.8 million for a new library. After several proposals, residents agreed to a $4.5 million debt exclusion override of Proposition 2½ to build the library in 2010, only to have the project denied a special permit by Zoning Board of Appeals chairman Bill Cargill, who said the 18,500-square foot building was too big for the 3.34-acre lot.
The proposed 15,000 square-foot building was designed taking all of the issues raised by various groups during the original design process into account, said Ellard.
At Town Meeting in February, Ellard described the size of some libraries in nearby communities: Hamilton and Wenham, with a combined population of 12,639, have a 29,000-square-foot regional library; Middleton, population 8,288, has an 18,200-square-foot library; Georgetown, 8,483 people and a 16,960-square-foot library; Topsfield 6,085 people and 15,896-square-foot library; and Rowley, population 5,856 and a 13,644-square-foot library. Boxford has a population of 8,555 and its library is 5,650 square feet.
Benson said he expects a large crowd at Town Meeting.
“I think it will be a very, very robust discussion,” he said. “I think the moderator is going to have his hands full.”