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Board supports expansion of Bel Air library


Harford County's library board voted Thursday to accept the proposed expansion of the Bel Air library at its existing site, a move that essentially eliminates any chance of a new library in the Route 24 corridor during the next decade.

The 4-2 vote came on a motion by Trustee Virginia O'Rourke to accept a feasibility study that concluded in May that the library could be expanded on its current site for about $7.5 million. Trustees also voted to ask County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann to put architectural fees and construction money in the fiscal 1996 budget.

The vote came after considerable discussion, most of it from board members who opposed the move.

Trustees Pamela Reiter and David Robinson said they feared that the expanded library still would be inadequate and that residents of "greater Bel Air" had not had enough participation in the decision. They voted against the motion.

Chairman Mary Pat Massarelli, who does not vote, joined them in voicing objections to the motion.

Mrs. Massarelli, a critic of expensive structures that drain the library system of money for books and staff, said she feared that parking still would be insufficient and that there would be no more room for growth.

"It's fiscally irresponsible to spend this money without looking at more options," she said. "My conscience doesn't let me say, 'Take the money and run.' "

Ms. Reiter and County Councilwoman Susan Heselton, a nonvoting board member, suggested that a public hearing be held before a vote was taken.

But Woodrow Grant, a board member since 1990, said the public had been given adequate opportunity to express opinions to the board. He voted for the proposal.

"The longer we hold off on making a decision, the more it's going to cost us," he said. "The Bel Air library is not going to be able to serve the greater Bel Air community in a few years. We're going to have to build another library closer to where the people are. But let's get on with the business of this particular expansion."

Other trustees who favored moving ahead at Hickory and Pennsylvania avenues cited a petition signed by 1,400 people and sent to the County Council in late 1992 asking for the library to remain in Bel Air.

The petition grew out of the trustees' announcement that they were considering building a new Bel Air library on a seven-acre site off Route 24 at McPhail Road. That site, just outside the town border, would provide sufficient room for free parking and future expansion.

The current Bel Air library is 34 years old and, at 22,000 square feet, is inadequate for the 260,000-item collection it houses.

Trustees said the McPhail Road site, with a 54,000-square-foot building, would serve residents of Bel Air as well as the exploding population in the Route 24 corridor better. The proposed cost of that building two years ago was $5.9 million.

But Mrs. Rehrmann, County Council President Jeffrey Wilson and the Bel Air town commissioners all opposed moving the library out of Bel Air.

Last year, Mrs. Rehrmann allocated $50,000 in the 1994 capital budget to study enlarging the Bel Air branch at its existing location. Earlier this year, the town agreed to turn over to the county a half-acre of parkland adjacent to the library to increase the feasibility of an expanded facility on that site.

In the county's fiscal 1995 capital budget, approved in May, Mrs. Rehrmann allocated $250,000 for the first stage of the architectural design of the building, locking in the administration's commitment to keep the library downtown.

"Even if the board acts this evening . . . under the best of circumstances, the library wouldn't be finished until well into 1997," Trustee Louis Balducci reminded the board before voting for the proposal Thursday night.

Larry Cunningham, county director of administration who attended the meeting in anticipation of the vote, acknowledged that late 1997 would be the earliest the expanded library could be completed.

The trustees' concern about the probable inadequacy of the Bel Air site is based on studies which project that 150,000 people will be living in the Bel Air-Abingdon area by the year 2010. That's far more people than the libraries in Bel Air and Edgewood can accommodate, said acting Library Director Irene Padilla.

Ms. Padilla said that Thursday's vote makes the Bel Air library a top priority for expansion. But she said expansion of the Edgewood library also will be critical in the late 1990s.

The county this year bought land adjacent to the Edgewood library, on Edgewood Road south of U.S. 40, with expansion in mind. But no money for the project is allocated in the current capital budget, and the earliest that design and engineering work could begin would be fiscal 1996, officials said.

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