FRANKLIN, NJ – A few Franklin Township residents remain committed to trying to preserve a heavily wooded parcel of value to their local neighborhood that now is the proposed construction site for a new library branch.
However, top library officials say they are too far along in the process to reverse course and abandon plans to build at 64 Clover Place, which will be home to a new 5,000 square foot Franklin Park Branch that will replace the smaller, less-ideally configured and expensive space located in a strip mall along Route 27.
“We’re not giving up without a fight,” said Franklin Township resident Veronica Avenir at her Clover Place home, which is right next to the proposed site. A 2.2-acre subdivision of the four-acre plot for the library, in a residential zoning district near the entrance and parking lot of the Franklin Park School, was approved by the Franklin Township Planning Board at a virtual meeting on May 5 and site plans are expected to be reviewed by the planning board at the August 4 virtual meeting.
At the May 5 planning board meeting, and other recent meetings, including of the Franklin Township Library Board of Trustees, residents have made their strong feelings known that the forested land serves a purpose and should remain undeveloped.
By building there, residents say the neighborhood oasis will be ruined – a natural habitat, home to much wildlife, and a green space, helping to promote that the area is safe and peaceful for walkers and bikers.
“We purchased our house about two and a half years ago, and when we originally bought this house, we were told that this little patch of woods would never be sold, this is a part of the school property. That was really appealing to us,” said Kersti Jakobson, a Garden Avenue resident, at the planning board meeting. “If you don’t live here, you don’t realize how tremendously important it is.”
If plans ultimately move forward, the multi-million dollar project could be awarded to a contractor by late October, library officials said. And construction could begin before the end of the year when the weather turns frigid.
Avenir and Anabelle Alvarez, who have lived in a home on Clover Place right next to the proposed site for about a decade, are among the more vocal protesters who said that they will continue to speak in opposition at future meetings.
Right now, the pair are trying to garner more support and hope to find a way to influence the library board to reconsider attempting to come up with a “win-win solution” in which the town can have its new library, but at an alternative site where there is no detrimental impact to neighbors.
The new library has been discussed as a possibility since 2016, and there have been multiple meetings featuring discussion about it, but Avenir and Alvarez say they weren’t given ample time to voice their concerns and suggest alternative sites.
They weren’t aware of the plans until March, when a town hall to discuss the project had been scheduled. “We’re feeling frustrated and angry because they don’t live here, we live here,” Avenir said.
Alvarez added, “If they really wanted us to know, they would have consulted us before picking the site. If they were serious about hearing from us, they could have sent a letter earlier in the process.”
Despite the pressure recently placed upon local leaders, the odds appear not to be in the residents’ favor at this point in time. The library board agreed to purchase the slightly more than two acres of land available at 64 Clover Place from the Franklin Township Board of Education for $240,000 last year.
The remaining 1.8 acres not purchased from the school district will remain untouched for now, according to Assistant Superintendent Jonathan Toth.
The board plans not to renew its lease for the 3,800 square feet of library at 3391 Route 27, Suite 10, which it has called home since 2012. The move to construct its own library is viewed as a cost-savings tactic and one that will lend additional space and a more ideal configuration to meet its needs.
Library Board President Nicholas Ciampa pointed out that the rent continues to be hiked for the current Route 27 strip mall space, and the board is also responsible for paying taxes. The board has evaluated about five other possibilities, whether that be vacant sites or abandoned buildings, on Route 27 and South Middlebush Road.
“Each attempt to evaluate a site costs money and time. It’s been a year and a half, or two years,” Ciampa said. “We’re not in a position to voluntarily back out now.”
Avenir and Alvarez previously noted the board should look into possibly buying the the former Franklin Park School and more recently the Greatstart Early Learning preschool, at 3081 State Route 27.
According to Ciampa, the 11,000 square foot building with a playground was not among the sites explored during the board’s search. The project also is tied to funding that was awarded to the library board earlier this year. Changing the site now, said Library Director January Adams, would disqualify the board from the $1.3 million grant made possible through the New Jersey Library Construction Bond Act.
The total project cost, including the acquisition of the land, comes out to about $3.4 million, Adams said. The figure does not include the preliminary work put into identifying a site. She said the library board will be able to cover the remaining $2.1 million because of “many, many years of savings” and no debt will be accrued.
Adams said the board anticipates saving about $100,000 per year because of this move to construct its own building at 64 Clover Place. In addition, the new library will feature a brand new private activities room and lend more overall space for historical archives and staff to work.
“We are really happy to be doing this for our town, and have been looking forward to this for a long time,” Adams said.
There have been other arguments raised to try and persuade local leaders to look to build elsewhere in town. Avenir and Alvarez wondered aloud at the April library board meeting if people still visit libraries, especially after a global pandemic.
They have requested hard data proving that people, especially of the younger demographic, still visit libraries, and suggested the board spend its money on investing in digital resources, especially for the younger generation.
According to Adams, 1,654 patrons visited its Route 27 library branch in May, and an average of 150 people are visiting its main library branch on Demott Lane per day.
Traffic was another concern, and one resident from Central Avenue, Christopher Brosius, told planning board members that this is a “real big township, and this [library] is something that you are trying really hard to squeeze into a small patch of woods.”
Officials have said an additional acre was purchased for the sake of designing a “large” buffer between the homes and the new library campus, as well as making other accommodations.
“There will be a number of new trees planted, and the environmental impact should be very small,” Ciampa said at an April board meeting. “Most of the trees are in the portion of this four acre lot that we did not buy and that’s where some deer have been noticed by the engineers who’ve gone in to look [at the site]. We have taken your concerns very much to heart, especially the mayor.”
Mayor Phillip Kramer, back in April, said the township has preserved more than 700 acres of habitat with its open space fund during the last five years. “We will continue to preserve habitat,” he added. “Over a third of the township is preserved open space, but not every acre can be spared. There are some times when we need to make some progress and move forward.”