Zoning Board Rejects Library Renovations Plan; What’s Next?

Thanks to Ward 4 Commissioner Dan Siegel for allowing us to use this article from his 4Haverford Newsletter of October 17, 2021

As many of you know, the Haverford Township Zoning Hearing Board has turned down the Haverford Township Free Library’s application for zoning relief that would allow the Library to complete the extensive renovations and expansion necessary for the Library to continue to provide and to improve upon the services that make it the largest volume library in Delaware County. I have received many questions about what happened and am providing this Q&A to provide as much information as possible.
What Happened?
On October 7th, the Zoning Hearing Board, by a vote of 3 to 2, denied the Library’s Application for a zoning variance to allow it to extensively renovate the Library and add a 5,000 square foot addition to the existing property at Darby and Mill Roads. Voting in favor of the application were Zoning Board Chair Robert Kane and member Jessica Vitali. Voting against the application were Vice Chair William Rhodes, Secretary Edward Magargee and member Jesse Pointon.
Who Appoints the Zoning Board?
The Board is appointed by the Board of Commissioners. The Zoning Board is a quasi-judicial entity that operates by state law independently from the Board of Commissioners. Anyone who is aggrieved by or disagrees with a Zoning Board decision must file an appeal with the Court of Common Pleas in Media.
Why Did the Board Deny the Library’s Zoning Application?
Board members are not required to state why they are voting yes or no on any matters. The Board must issue a decision following its rulings, but the decision generally only states the decision, not the reason for it. That is what happened with the Library.
How Can the Public and the Library Find Out Why The Board Turned Down the Application?
By filing an appeal within 30 days. After the appeal is filed, the Board must issue a written decision explaining the reasoning behind its decision. There is no time limit within which the Board must issue its written decision, even following an appeal. The Court in Media can order the decision if the Board is not forthcoming.
Is an Appeal Being Filed?
Yes, because the Township owns the Library Building and the Board of Commissioners disagreed with the Zoning Board Decision, the Commissioners authorized the Township solicitor to file an appeal. We expect the Library will authorize the attorney who represented it at the Zoning Board to also file an appeal.
Who Pays for All of the Lawyers?
The Township (meaning the taxpayers) pays for all three lawyers: (1) the Township Solicitor, (2) the Library’s Zoning Solicitor, and (3) the Zoning Board Solicitor. In other words, we pay for the lawyers on both sides of the case.
How Long Does an Appeal Take, and Can the Township/Library Win an Appeal?
Because there are no time frames, and unless the matter settles, it can take months, often a year or two in my professional experience, for an appeal to be decided. On appeal, the Judge hearing the appeal must decide whether the Zoning Board made a legal error; otherwise it must affirm the decision even if it would decide it differently. The bottom line is that there is no way to know how long an appeal will take. Anyone who has assured the public to the contrary has no basis for doing so.
What Happens to the Library Project During the Appeal?
Nothing. Unless a new project is proposed, the current proposed renovations are on hold. And as in the past, the cost will increase, as it has done during all the years before this.
What About the Prior Proposals, Including Building a New Library?
At this point, they are dead. Nothing is happening with any other options, and the Library remains in need of either renovations or a new building.
How Long Have There Been Discussions About Library Renovations? What Happened with the Brookline School? A Timeline
Forever, it seems. The 1988 Comprehensive Plan discusses recent library renovations, noting that “One proposal revolves around the recent expansion of the public library on Mill Road. This site is not adequate to provide adequate off-street parking.” There have been no renovations or other changes to the Library since then.
November 2008
When I joined the Board in November 2008, renovating, expanding or relocating the Library was an issue I raised during the campaign. Shortly thereafter, Board President Bill Weschsler appointed me as Chair of the Township Property Committee.
June 2011
In June 2011, the Township Property Committee recommended (1) as a short-term recommendation that the Library acquire an adjoining lot to create additional parking, and (2) as a long-term recommendation that the Library, create a long-term plan for renovation and/or expansion of the existing Library, or identify and acquire a property for construction of a new Library.
November 2013
In November 2013, the Township Property Committee reported that “The condition of the library has deteriorated significantly, requiring the Property Committee to re-evaluate the future of the Library,” noting that: (1) the Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing systems were 30+ years old, inefficient, (2) at the end of their useful lives, (3) emergency repairs were needed in the basement relating to electrical and other systems, (4) the facility was not fully Building Code compliant, (5) the facility was not fully ADA-compliant, (5) the facility has space deficiencies, (6) the facility has limited parking and no safe drop-off zones, (7) a significant portion of the Library’s budget is now devoted to maintenance and repairs. The Report recommended either repairing/renovating the existing facility or including the Library in the proposed Municipal Building.
September 2014
In September 2014, the Board of Commissioners voted to provide funding for renovation of the existing library, with the expectation that the renovations would commence when the new Municipal Services Building opened. The Municipal Services Building opened in December 2017.
January 2018
At the January 2018 Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Hart announced that the Township had recently learned that the School Board was not interested in owning the Brookline School on Earlington Road anymore. He added that no decision had been made for the Township acquiring the property.
Thereafter, the Board of Commissioners entered into discussions with the School Board about acquiring the property with the idea that the location would either be the location for a new Library building or a public use such as a park. From my perspective, it appeared that a majority of the Board preferred the idea of building a new Library at the Brookline School site.
2018 to 2019
All discussions with the School Board proceeded with the understanding that if the Township acquired the school, it could only use the property for a public use such as a new Library or a park or similar facility. The Deed also confirmed legally this limitation. All other uses were not permitted under the agreement between the School District and Township.
When the potential for building a library at the Brookline School site became public, plans for Library renovations were placed on hold to analyze the location following the eventual demolition of the building. A group of residents opposed demolition of the property and also opposed building a new Library at the site. I received countless comments supporting building a new Library.
As a result of the public comments, an ad hoc committee was created to consider other options for the school building, even though such restrictions were prohibited in the Deed and by the agreement with the School Board. When no options were feasible, the ad hoc committee reported back to the full Board of Commissioners. Despite discussions about these restrictions, some Commissioners claimed ignorance of them until the time the ad hoc committee report was released.
September 2020
When the other options were ruled out for the Brookline School, notwithstanding the Deed restriction, the Board voted on September 14, 2020 to renovate the Library rather than build a new Library at the Brookline School site. The vote was 6 to 3, with the following votes recorded:
  • Commissioner Steve D’Emilio – renovate
  • Commissioner Mario Oliva – renovate
  • Commissioner Kevin McCloskey – renovate
  • Commissioner Dan Siegel – relocate and build a new library
  • Commissioner Andy Lewis – renovate
  • Commissioner Conor Quinn – renovate
  • Commissioner Gerry Hart – renovate
  • Commissioner Larry Holmes – relocate and build a new library
  • Commissioner Bill Wechsler – relocate and build a new library
October 2021
Thirteen months later, the Zoning Board denied the Library’s request for a variance to allow it to renovate and expand.
What Does the Library Do Now?
That is to be determined. Unless a new project is proposed, the current proposed renovations are on hold. And as in the past, the cost will continue to increase.
What Did You Do Following the Zoning Decision?
First, I voted to appeal, with the hope that the matter can be resolved. I also stated that I do not believe that this is the best way to proceed because of the likely delays in the project and the ever-increasing cost of the project. In my view, had we moved expeditiously when we acquired the Brookline School, based on the information the Property Committee had, we could have built a new Library at the Brookline School site with at least 60 parking spots for what the renovations are likely to cost. Renovations, however, leave the Library with a paltry 17 parking spots.
What Else Did You Do Following the Zoning Decision?
I immediately sought permission to have the Board of Commissioners vote to move forward with plans to build a new Library at the Brookline School site. The Board voted not to do so, as follows:
  • Commissioner Steve D’Emilio – no to voting on building a new library
  • Commissioner Mario Oliva – no to voting on building a new library
  • Commissioner Kevin McCloskey – no to voting on building a new library
  • Commissioner Dan Siegel – yes to voting on building a new library
  • Commissioner Bernie McCabe – no to voting on building a new library
  • Commissioner Larry Holmes – yes to voting on building a new library
  • Commissioner Bill Wechsler – yes to voting on building a new library
  • Commissioner Conor Quinn –no to voting on building a new library
  • Commissioner Gerry Hart – no to voting on building a new library
What Are Your Opinions for the Future?
It is my opinion that the Board of Commissioners has repeatedly mishandled the Library renovations. I regret that after decades of talk, the Board of Commissioners has not expressed a true commitment to moving forward with meaningful renovations or construction of a new Library.
In addition, with an election weeks away, ask the candidates for Commissioner (both parties) where they stand on the Library. For incumbents, examine how they voted to see if their words match their votes. Vote for real leadership.