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Zoning board decision puts Sharon library project in limbo

Sharon voters approved construction of a new public library at 1 School St. - seen at right in a simulated photo of the site - but the town Zoning Board of Appeals denied variances that would allow the construction.
Sharon voters approved construction of a new public library at 1 School St. - seen at right in a simulated photo of the site - but the town Zoning Board of Appeals denied variances that would allow the construction.Sharon Board of Library Trustees

The future of a new $18 million public library in Sharon is uncertain after the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted in July to deny variances that would allow its construction.

The Sharon Public Library Board of Trustees indicated it would probably appeal the decision.

“We are disappointed that, after years of public vetting, Town Meeting approval [and] overwhelming approval by the voters at the ballot, the ZBA has, in our opinion, effectively usurped that process and improperly rendered in its decision a pocket veto of the project,” library board chair Cheryl Weinstein said after the July 8 ZBA vote.

“The Library, and those who work in concert with and support the Library, are actively communicating with counsel about our rights and remedies,” she wrote in an e-mail.

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The project has been in the works since 2012, and last spring voters approved borrowing money to build the new and substantially bigger library on town-owned land at 1 School St., a block away from the current 106-year-old building. The town was awarded a $7.5 million state grant toward the construction.

The ZBA’s decision to deny four of five required variances came after a long and contentious Zoom hearing in which board members questioned the need for such a large library on an undersized lot in a residential neighborhood. Board members also questioned the design, especially the inclusion of large meeting rooms in the library.

Some members suggested redesigning and decreasing the size of the library, so it fit within the town’s setback and lot coverage requirements.

At the hearing, an attorney for the town told the board that the library project was covered by the state law known as the Dover Amendment, which superseded local zoning rules.

ZBA members questioned whether allowing the library to go forward with inadequate setbacks from property lines would set a bad precedent for the town.

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Weinstein said the .8-acre lot was chosen after the Sharon Historical Commission denied permission to renovate the existing and structurally challenged library, which is in a historic district. She said no other municipal property was suitable, and the Select Board voted in August 2016 to support 1 School St. as the new library location.

Weinstein said the town would have wasted $1 million in design costs if the project must be redesigned — and would have to spend another $750,000 to $800,000 in new design expenses. In addition, she said, the town risked losing the $7.5 million grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

The state board has made two formal decisions regarding towns that had received library construction grants and later wanted to reduce the size of new buildings, according to Andrea Bunker, the board’s library building specialist.

The board approved a request from Shrewsbury because the town acquired additional land that allowed a redesign that improved the building’s efficiency without affecting library programs, Bunker said.

The board rejected a request from the town of Boxford to reduce space in its new library because it “would have resulted in a building that did not adequately serve the community.”

Bunker said that to keep the state grant, Sharon has until June 30, 2023, to begin construction of its new library. “Any breach of the contract, regulations, and/or assurances on the part of the town of Sharon will result in the return of all funds disbursed from the state with any accrued interest,” Bunker said.

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“We certainly hope they can work this out,” said Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners spokeswoman Celeste Bruno.

Bruno said Sharon could cut 3,870 square feet from the library size, as long as the “programming and functionality of the spaces” were preserved.

She also said the town has received about $1.5 million of the state grant so far, and has spent about $660,400 of it — all of which would need to be returned if the project doesn’t move forward

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.