Rockingham Faces Controversy Over Library Renovation

May 20, 2013

Tempers have erupted in the town of Rockingham over a decision to close the public library during renovations this summer.

The plan has sparked opposition from residents who say that closing the much-loved library is unnecessary.

The Rockingham Public library is finishing up a $3 million, voter-approved renovation.

The project came to a halt last fall when workers walked off the job because they hadn’t been paid. The president of Baybutt Construction, the general contractor, later filed for bankruptcy.

After months of delay and serious financial losses, the project has resumed under a new contractor. But the disruption left the library without a working elevator, a requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“First and foremost it is not ADA compliant,” says Deborah Wright.

Wright, the vice chair of the library trustees, says that’s why board members voted earlier this month to close the building.

At several heated meetings, residents opposed to closing the facility have said that library staff have been delivering books to those who can’t use stairs.

But Wright says that’s not enough.

“They have no access to any of the other services,” Wright says. “They can’t use the computers or any of the other research materials available to every other patron.”

The trustees are looking at several possible sites for library programs. They’re hoping the Bellows Falls Waypoint Center, which provides information about the area to tourists, will house the library’s computers and reference services through August. That’s when Wright says she expects the library to reopen.

The Rockingham select board voted once against the Waypoint Center proposal, but the question is expected to come up again.

Rockingham interim town manager Chip Stearns, says the library has been certified for occupancy.

“The document provided by the Vermont State fire marshal,” he says, “Does in fact state that the temporary lift is out of order and it’s not required under the circumstances that they’re in now for construction.”

Stearns says arrangements were made in advance with the contractor to keep the library open most days during construction. 

Stearns adds that the Rockingham Select Board passed a non binding resolution.

“Basically it says that the board saw their decision to close was harmful to the taxpayers and the children of the community.”

“It is so disruptive!” says Elaine Clift, the  president of the nonprofit Friends of Rockingham Library. Clift says the group is looking at ways to fight the trustees’ decision to close the building.

“It has so divided the community,” she says. “There’s been a petition signed,  with 100 signatures inside of 24 hours: ‘Keep the library open.’”  People have come to trustees meetings and not been allowed to speak.”

But library staff are packing up books and equipment. The library closed last week for a three-day asbestos removal project, and the trustees voted to keep it closed until the renovation is finished.