Lexington Town Meeting
Kunal Botla / LexObserver

Town Meeting approved Community Preservation Act funding for several capital projects at its fifth session Monday evening, including expenditures to make the Munroe Center for the Arts ADA-compliant, refurbish two church clocks and add accessible trails to Willard’s Woods.

An elevator for Munroe Center

Munroe Center for the Arts leadership requested about $6.6 million in funding from the Community Preservation Committee to pay for a new elevator and bathroom upgrades to make the more than century-old building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Munroe Center has three floors, but only one of those is currently wheelchair-accessible. 

The funding will also upgrade the building’s HVAC system, including by installing a more efficient heat pump system that will air condition the building during increasingly warm summers now that the Munroe Center provides summer programming. Executive Director Cristina Burwell said she anticipates the renovations will be completed by the summer of 2024.

Town Meeting Member Lauren Black (P8) spoke up to note that these accessibility improvements would make a difference to his own family, including his 12-year-old daughter, who is wheelchair-bound. “I think this simply is a no-brainer for us as a town,” he said.

Jamie Magid, a student at the Munroe Center with a disability, also spoke about how these changes would impact her own life. “So many people feel like the arts are their saving grace when they are living with things like chronic illnesses,” she said. “I’m very pro anything that makes the arts more accessible.”

Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved the Munroe Center renovation funding, with 165 votes in favor, three opposed, and three abstentions.

Two clock renovations

Two churches, First Parish and Follen Church, requested about $12,000 and $9,600 respectively in community preservation funds to renovate their clocks.

Proponents of both renovations argued that the clock towers were community assets and that any assistance to the church would be “incidental,” so the funding was not requested for religious purposes. Town Counsel Mina Makarious agreed with this characterization of the funding from a legal perspective. But several Town Meeting Members argued that despite the legal possibility to fund these renovations, it amounted to unfair treatment elevating Christian churches over temples, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions. 

“Lexington is a diverse community, with people of many different religions,” said Town Meeting Member Jennifer Richlin (P4). “But if we approve these projects, we may be unintentionally contributing to the institutional bias that often exists in funding historic projects.” She stressed that she did not fault the intentions of any of the project proponents, but believed renovating church clock towers was an inappropriate use of tax dollars.

Town Meeting Member Andrei Rădulescu-Banu (P8) took a different view. “Absolutely separation between church and state, but no to separation between state and time, so I’m voting yes,” he said.

Follen Church proponents only recently discovered that this clock tower belongs to the church, and not to the Town, Follen Church Finance and Human Resources Action Team Chair Nancy Sofen noted.

Article 10e, funding the renovation of First Parish’s clock, passed with 102 votes in favor, 54 opposed, and eight abstentions. Article 10f, funding Follen’s clock renovation, passed with slightly less support – 97 votes yes, 58 votes no, and seven abstentions.

Willard’s Woods site improvements

The Conservation Commission requested about $1.2 million in community preservation funding for improvements to Willard’s Woods conservation land, including creating 1.1 miles of accessible trails and expanding standard and accessible parking.

Article 10g passed unanimously, with 152 votes in favor and four abstentions.

LexHAB property acquisition pre-funding

The Lexington Housing Assistance Board, which Town Meeting approved transforming from a quasi-municipal organization to a nonprofit last fall, returned on Monday to request $400,000 in pre-funding in order to have money on hand to acquire a property to provide affordable housing whenever an appropriately priced property comes on the market. 

Article 10o passed unanimously as part of a joint vote with 10g (the two were paired to save time).

Hancock-Clarke Barn restoration

The Lexington Historical Society asked the Community Preservation Committee for about $118,400 for the first phase of renovating the Hancock-Clarke Barn, which was built in the 1850s. During this phase, the Historical Society plans to restore the barn’s physical structure, making it more accessible and compliant with building codes in order to make the barn a viable space for educational programming for school and tour groups.

“This is a project that is very near and dear to my heart because it’s about community, it’s about making the barn accessible, bringing more school kids in,” said Executive Director Carol Ward. She noted that the other phases of construction will be privately funded through Historical Society fundraising.

Some Town Meeting Members questioned whether the barn’s historic value justified the requested expenditure. “To the best of my knowledge, Ralph Waldo Emerson did not speak in that barn,” Appropriation Committee member John Bartenstein (P1) quipped, implicitly contrasting the barn restoration project with the Stone Building Town Meeting approved design funds for last week.

Article 10c passed with 128 votes in favor, 31 opposed, and seven abstentions.

No archeological study or tree stump art projects 

Town Meeting voted down two articles on Monday: a citizen petition by Jeff Howry (P2) to appropriate $65,000 to fund an evaluation of archaeologically valuable sites throughout Lexington, and a proposal by another community member to appropriate $22,000 for an art project that would carve likenesses of New England birds into tree stumps near the Center Recreation Complex. 

The Select Board opposed Howry’s proposal because it was not proposed until the Town’s FY24 budgeting process was already well underway. In a statement, the Select Board suggested grant funding might be more appropriate for this initiative. 

“We were voting on the fact that we have a very tight budget this year,” not on the merits of the project, Chair Jill Hai noted.

The proposal to carve birds into tree stumps came after the Department of Public Works removed about two dozen white pines near the Center Recreation Complex last summer. The proponent, sponsored by the Lexington Council for the Arts, suggested creating the art project out of the stumps left behind, but Town Meeting Members questioned the use of more than $20,000 in funding for an aesthetic project, as well as the project’s longevity, since the Department of Public Works has committed to replanting trees in the same area.

Article 8 to fund an archaeological study failed with 43 votes in favor, 99 opposed and 20 abstentions. Article 10m to carve birds into trees failed with 43 votes in favor, 87 opposed and 10 abstentions.

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