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By Renee Batti
Almanac News Editor
In addition to choosing two members of their City Council this November, Atherton residents will cast yea or nay votes on three ballot measures, the most controversial of which asks whether a library should be built in the town's only park.
Measure F asks voters whether the town should build a library in Holbrook-Palmer Park, razing the Main House to make way for the new building, and using existing funds dedicated for library purposes only.
Another question before voters, Measure M, also involves the park. It asks whether the Menlo-Atherton Little League should be permitted to improve the existing ball field and surrounding areas in the park, using private funds. The improvements would include building a permanent spectator stand and restrooms, and the resurfacing of the nearby tennis courts.
Measure L asks residents whether funding to build a new Town Center should be restricted primarily to private donations.
A rancorous debate
Although a number of residents opposed the idea of putting a new library in the park from the beginning, the debate grew more heated a year ago when the council, by a 3-2 vote, rejected opponents' request to put the question to voters, and instead approved the project, pending a favorable environmental review.
Council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson voted against the project, and also pushed for a town-wide vote. Mayor Bill Widmer and council members Kathy McKeithen and Jim Dobbie relented last spring, allowing the vote to go forward.
The rancor over the issue continues to grow. A citizens group -- spearheaded by residents including Didi and John Fisher, Rose Hau, Sherman Hall III, and Valerie Gardner -- has led the charge against Measure F. Calling itself "Save Our Park," the group has a website and has distributed fliers claiming, among other things, that residents weren't given an opportunity to decide where they prefer the library to be built.
The park was chosen by the council as the preferred site for a new library after about two years of study and discussion led by a volunteer steering committee headed by resident Denise Kupperman, a longtime volunteer who is now running for a council seat. The committee held more than 100 public meetings and conducted a series of community workshops.
The committee, which also included Councilwoman McKeithen and library staff members, recommended the park site as the option most conducive for building a facility that would also serve as the heart of the community, creating space for community groups to meet while adding much more space to house the library's collections.
The option of renovating and expanding the existing 4,790-square-foot library, which is in need of seismic retrofitting, was considered a poor alternative for a number of reasons. For one thing, it would require the library to move into a temporary space for about two years.
Also, noise from trains roaring through on nearby tracks is disruptive to programs such as children's story-time, and has been a longtime complaint of library patrons and staff.
Walter Sleeth, co-chair with Ginny Nile of a pro-Measure F citizens group, said in a written statement that building the library in the park "would allow for a quieter library away from the rail line. It would connect the library's programs to the outdoor areas in the park.
"In addition, the library will be designed to have spaces to continue as a magnet for community events, replacing the outdated and costly Main House."
But opponents of Measure F argue that other sites, including the existing one, would be feasible for a rebuilt library, and should be further explored. The ballot argument against the measure says a library would change the park's character and disrupt its tranquility, competing "with the intended use of the park as a recreational area."
The ballot argument in favor of the measure is signed by Mayor Widmer, Councilwoman McKeithen, and three residents. The argument against it is signed by five former mayors: Didi and John Fisher, Malcolm Dudley, Jim Janz, and current Councilman Jerry Carlson.
Click here to see arguments and rebuttals.
Both sides accuse the other of deception and of issuing inaccurate information. For example, opponents say a library in the park could be built to a size up to 20,000 square feet. The environmental impact report studied options that included a 13,500-square-foot structure and one of only 10,000 square feet, which essentially locks the town into those two options.
Mayor Widmer and Councilwoman McKeithen noted that the larger option was studied on the advice of a town planner, who said the town needed some flexibility. But the larger size "was not the steering committee's number," Ms. McKeithen said.
Athough the council hasn't voted on the building's size, it has stated that the footprint can be no larger than 10,000 square feet, and "I have said ... and the EIR recommended that the total library should be 10,000 square feet or less as the most preferred version," Mr. Widmer said.
Although a future council could approve a 13,500-square-foot library, with a small second floor, "there has never been a 20,000-square-foot plan as is being publicized by the No on F people," he said.
Calls to Didi and John Fisher were not returned.
After throwing considerable energy and support behind a library in the park, Councilwoman McKeithen acknowledges that the opposition may prevail. "If we had a level playing field, (Measure F) would have a chance," she said. But, she added, the Save Our Parks campaign has put out false information, and that may doom the project.
"But don't take my word for it," she said. "Do your own homework. Look at the documents yourself" before deciding how to vote.
The question voters face about the proposed, privately funded ball field improvements in the park is far less complicated and controversial. The Little League proposes to build covered bleachers to seat up to 200 people, and restrooms that will be open to all park users, as well as make improvements to the field itself.
Jeff Morris, who was a leader in the effort to win town approval for the existing ball field about 10 years ago, said the latest proposal wouldn't increase use of the field, but it would make it safer and better maintained.
"Little League is already there," he said. "We built it, kids have been playing on it, but the field was never maintained."
Bob Hellman of Atherton, whose family foundation "Build Our Ballpark" is partially funding the project, said the renovation would deal with a number of safety issues, including spectators being hit by balls and kids spraining their ankles on the poorly maintained field.
The Little League will resurface the playing field as well as the nearby tennis courts. The project will add drainage and sprinkler systems on the field, he said. The bleachers will be built on "the safest part of the field." The field will continue to be used by other youth sports groups like soccer and lacrosse, he said.
Frank Merrill, a Parks and Recreation commissioner, and Tree Committee member Rachel Croft wrote the ballot argument against Measure M. Putting the question before voters now is premature, and has forced an "up or down" decision without leaving room for future negotiation between the town and Little League to come up with the optimal plan, they argue.
Click here to see ballot arguments.
Mayor Widmer, Councilwoman McKeithen and three residents signed the ballot arguments in favor of Measure L. There is no ballot argument against it.
An effort is already under way to design and raise private funds for the building of a new Town Center, a project that would create a new police station and administrative offices. Currently, staff works out of cramped spaces in buildings that, in some cases, don't meet building code standards. The planning and building departments operate out of decrepit portable buildings.
With Measure L, the council is seeking input from voters on how the center should be paid for. Voting for the measure would restrict the funding to primarily private donations, grants, and building fees, and would not allow the use of general fund tax money or parcel tax funds without voter approval, according to the impartial analysis of the town attorney.
Click here to see the ballot arguments.