Amherst to forge ahead on Jones Library project in wake of court decision

  • An artist’s conception shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. COURTESY FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/2/2021 8:08:20 PM

AMHERST — A building committee will soon be formed to oversee the process of expanding and renovating the Jones Library into a fully accessible community center following a court decision halting an effort by petitioners seeking a townwide referendum on the project.

With a Hampshire Superior Court judge on Friday denying a preliminary injunction sought by residents attempting to bring the $36.3 million project to a townwide vote, library and town officials say they can begin work on enhancing the Amity Street building, built in 1928 and most recently expanded in the early 1990s.

Although uncertainty remains about whether more obstacles may be presented, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the judge’s decision allowed him to sign contracts with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners so the town can begin receiving payments from the $13.87 million state grant.

In an affidavit filed with the court, Bockelman wrote that a delay in signing this contract could result in higher costs for the building project if the first $2.77 million payment doesn’t come in on time.

Library trustees President Austin Sarat said he has been pleased by the overwhelming support the proposal has received. In addition to creating the building committee, work on fundraising can begin in earnest, and the design development process can get underway to take the building from 48,000 square feet to 63,000 square feet.

“This is an exciting moment for Amherst, as we continue the work that is necessary to revitalize the Jones Library, make it a model of environmental sustainability, and ensure that it serves all Amherst residents,” Sarat said.

The Town Council voted 10-2, with one abstention, on April 5 to borrow $15.75 million within the tax levy, meaning the project doesn’t require a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override.

A campaign is also underway to raise $6.6 million from private and public sources, and even with the questions about putting the project to a townwide vote, campaign co-chairman Kent Faerber said during an online community chat last week that 90 individuals have made pledges, with more than 70 of those donating $1,000 or more.

In addition to the larger building, with space for special collections, a dedicated room for teens and more area for the English as a Second Language Program, defects in the current building, such as problems with the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, will be corrected.

Kelly Erwin, a resident who has patronized the library since the early 1970s, said she feels the project has gone through a democratic process and that the public has been able to provide enough feedback through forums and surveys.

“I feel very strongly that these plans are combining the best of the old library and what’s needed for a new library,” Erwin said. The project, Erwin said, will make the Jones a place for all residents and reinvigorate the downtown when it is complete.

That the Jones is viewed as an important attraction to draw visitors to shops and restaurants has also meant the project is endorsed by town business leaders.

Hampshire Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini denied a preliminary injunction filed by residents seeking to use the voter veto provision of the town charter. They had asked to extend by a week the time to gather the necessary signatures, use electronic signatures or cut in half the number needed. The judge ruled that would cause irreparable harm for the town and library, though he left the door open for an appeal of his decision to the Supreme Judicial Court.

The lawsuit came after the town clerk’s office certified 842 signatures, 22 fewer than the town charter requirement that 5% of voters registered at the time of the last town election are needed for a voter veto. That would have forced the council to revote and then schedule a referendum on the matter.

Petitioners are not saying whether they will appeal, but observe they have already submitted 51 affidavits signed by residents who contend their signatures should have counted.

As of Sunday, the town, its lawyers and the Board of Registrars have failed to reply to, or set a hearing date for the petitioners’ April 23 objection to the town clerk’s decision not to certify some signatures.

“We are increasingly alarmed by the lack of response from town officials to our lawful appeal and request for a hearing,” lead petition organizer Carol Gray said, adding that the town has 14 days to hold that hearing.

Among those whose signatures were not certified was Rita Burke, who was also a litigant in the court case.

“I wrote in the address that I have lived at for about 37 years, and signed my name the way I always do. I am sure that I was disqualified in error,” Burke said.

“We were very surprised by many of the disqualifications,” said Marla Jamate, another resident spearheading the petition drive. “They include well-known residents who have lived in their homes and been registered voters in Amherst for many years, including former Amherst elected officials and employees, and well-known scholars at UMass and the colleges.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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