FALMOUTH — A June 14 referendum on a proposal to redevelop the Plummer-Motz and Lunt elementary schools into a community center and public library is one of the most contentious issues to face town voters in years.

The question has divided town councilors and library supporters, and organized campaigns on each side are blaming the other for circulating misleading information.

The controversy hinges on whether town funds should be used to redevelop the schools for mostly public purposes, or whether the schools should be sold to generate town revenue, expand the tax base and promote business opportunities.

“It’s complex,” said Lisa Preney, a former library trustee who helped to start the opposition group Falmouth Citizens for Sound Choices. “It’s probably the most divisive issue in Falmouth in years.”

The Plummer-Motz and Lunt elementary schools will soon be vacant because the town has built a new elementary school, set to open next fall, between the middle and high schools on Woodville Road. The community held a farewell festival at the Plummer-Motz and Lunt schools Friday and Saturday.

The ballot proposal calls for converting the Motz building and Mason gym into a community center, renovating the Lunt building into a new home for the Falmouth Memorial Library, and fixing up the Plummer building to be leased to a private group or firm.

The $5.65 million project would be financed with $1.5 million from the town’s reserve funds, $1.25 million to be raised by library trustees, and money to be generated from the sale of several town properties, including the current library, the Pleasant Hill Fire Station, and land behind the Plummer-Motz and Lunt schools.

If the full amount isn’t raised by 2015, the project won’t go forward, guaranteeing that the town won’t increase property taxes to fund the required renovations, according to a brochure from the pro-referendum group Smart Move for Falmouth.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Falmouth,” said Marna Miller, co-chair of the Smart Move for Falmouth campaign. “This plan was developed very carefully over months and months, and we can do this in a fiscally responsible way without raising taxes.”

Supporters say the proposal would create a new “town campus” at Lunt and Middle roads, including a long-desired community center to address a 45 percent increase in recreational programs in the last 10 years, according to the brochure. A petition signed by 1,000 residents last year supported continued civic use of the buildings.

Moving to the 20,000-square-foot Lunt building would double the size of the library, where circulation of books and other borrowed materials has increased 58 percent in the last decade and public computers were used more than 8,600 times last year, according to the brochure.

To meet growing needs, trustees voted unanimously to move the library from its current location on Lunt Road because of building and site constraints.

The referendum proposal also would create a “town green” between the community center and library, where concerts, farmers markets and other outdoor activities could be held.

Miller countered rumors circulating around town that the proposal calls for building a public swimming pool at the site, which it doesn’t.

She also disputed a political ad taken out by the opposition that says voting against the referendum would create a “community programs facility” at the Motz-Mason buildings.

“If this referendum fails, no other plan for a community center exists,” Miller said.

She also questioned opponents’ desire to sell the schools.

“I would say it’s not fiscally responsible to be selling a valuable asset in a down economy,” she said.

Preney, a leader of the opposition group, questioned whether Falmouth should get into the real estate management business if voters support the proposal to lease the Plummer building.

“There is a diversity of opinions in our group,” Preney said. “Some would like to see the whole thing sold and put on the tax rolls, but it could be a public-private use,” possibly including a community center in the Motz and Mason buildings.

Opponents question whether the public facilities and programs created by the ballot proposal would increase taxes in the long run, Preney said. They note that the town’s reserve funds and cash generated from the sale of town properties also constitute taxpayers’ money. A petition signed by 70 residents last year sought greater consideration of private redevelopment.

Opponents dispute the need to move the library, Preney said, citing recent studies that found the library could be expanded at its present location for much less than the $3 million it would cost to renovate the Lunt building.

They also question library statistics showing a 23 percent increase in the number of individual visits per year in the last five years, from nearly 114,000 in 2005 to more than 141,000 in 2010, according to a consultant’s report.

“To reach that number, there would have to be 50 people visiting the library, per hour, every hour that it’s open, so it doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” Preney said.

During the same period, Preney said, the library’s federal tax-exempt filings show that the number of individual borrowers declined, from 8,877 in 2005 to 8,460 in 2010. Falmouth has about 11,000 residents.

Opponents worry about the recent advent of e-books and their unknown future impact on library use and storage needs, Preney said. They say turning Lunt into a library would create redundant public study and computer space, especially with the opening of the new elementary school that has community space for both.

“I don’t think libraries will disappear, but they won’t need to double in size,” Preney said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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