A proposal to demolish the Riverhead School District bus garage and construct a new facility behind the Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverside has drawn opposition from civic members, who charge that the plan will burden their community by reducing its tax base and tying up traffic.
The Riverhead Board of Education last month approved two propositions related to the proposal that will be put before voters alongside the district’s proposed $117.6 million budget for 2013-14, on Tuesday, May 21. The first calls for the district to establish a reserve fund to cover the costs for two options: demolishing the district-owned bus garage on Osborne Avenue in Riverhead Town and installing athletic fields in its place, or renovating the current garage where it sits. The second proposition, if approved by voters, would allow the district to purchase two lots adjacent to the Phillips Avenue Elementary School property using revenue from the sale of development rights for land that the district owns off Tuthills Lane in Aquebogue.
Schools Superintendent Nancy Carney explained in an email on Tuesday that the district is considering constructing a new garage on district-owned property behind the Riverside school. But in order for that plan to work, the district would need to purchase two neighboring lots, including one in the Riverside enterprise zone, so that buses can reach State Route 24 without traveling through residential neighborhoods.
“There is still much analysis to do before we determine whether the garage should stay where it is or go elsewhere,” she added in the email.
Brad Bender, the president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association (FRNCA), said that plan would disrupt the flow of traffic on the already-congested State Route 24 area and worsen jams in the nearby traffic circle.
“They’re going to sell more expensive property in Aquebogue so they can buy our cheaper property in Riverside to dump their buses,” he said this week.
He and FRNCA Vice President Vince Taldone said they have worked hard for years with the Town of Southampton to establish the enterprise zone, which is comprised of nearly two dozen lots, many of which are still vacant, in hopes of attracting commercial businesses that would increase the area’s tax base and reduce the tax burden on residents. If the school district purchases the properties, they will be removed from the tax rolls.
“We have only so many lots and we don’t want the school district taking one of them and turning it into a driveway and a parking lot,” Mr. Taldone said.
He added that the bus traffic could deter people from the businesses in the enterprise zone, and added that bus barn would be an eyesore for the children who attend Phillips Avenue, the only school in the Riverhead School District that falls in Southampton Town.
“That’s hardly an aesthetic for toddlers,” Mr. Taldone said. “It’s wrong.”
Ms. Carney said the district looked for a property that was affordable, centrally located and not in residential areas—and the Riverside properties met those criteria. She added that the district cannot wait until its plans are finalized to buy the properties because they could be sold to another party. If the propositions pass, the district would also need voter approval of the actual construction, which would not begin until it has saved the necessary funds over the course of several years, she said.
“We are only seeking voter permission to possibly buy the land as a means to secure the option to it,” she said. “Without voter ascent, that option is closed.”
Board of Education President Ann Cotten-DeGrasse said the existing bus barn building, built in 1920 as a horse stable, is “dilapidated.”
“Unfortunately, for many years it was neglected as budgets were spent on other priorities,” Ms. Carney added.
Though the district first discussed building a new facility to store its roughly 100 buses and vans on district-owned land off Tuthills Lane in Aquebogue, Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said that was not a popular idea. In turn, officials are now trying to sell the development rights to the property.
“To put it in the middle of land already preserved as farmland was not a popular concept,” she said of that proposal.
She added that it would be costly to repair the current building—fixing the roof alone would cost upward of $1 million—and noted that creating new athletic fields in its place would benefit both the students and community. “What we were looking at is making it like an education campus,” she said.
The district now plans to sell the development rights for the 27 acres it owns off Tuthills Lane to Suffolk County for $1.2 million, proceeds that will be placed in the reserve fund, along with existing capital reserves and the undesignated fund balance, according to Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse. The School Board could then use those revenues to purchase a roughly 1.4-acre strip of land that borders the Phillips Avenue Elementary School to the north for a maximum of $55,000, as well as a roughly 1.5-acre lot located in the Riverside enterprise zone for a maximum of $425,000. Both privately owned parcels are zoned light industrial and are currently vacant.
“I recognize that the land was intended to be commercially developed, but it has sat vacant for many years now generating a negligible amount in property taxes,” Ms. Carney wrote in an email.
She explained that the two properties generate $4,868.65 in property taxes annually, accounting for a fraction of the roughly $15.1 million that Southampton Town residents in the district pay combined in school taxes. She added that if the district acquired the land, the tax rate would jump by less than 1 percent—meaning that taxpayers whose homes are assessed at $250,000 would pay an additional 20 cents total in school taxes.
Though the district looked for other lots that could be suitable for the new garage and storage lot, the asking prices were too high, according to Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse. She also noted that the district does not own any other suitable properties.
“We started with Tuthills Lane, then other pieces of property—but it’s astronomical what they want for the space we need,” she said.
Ms. Carney estimated that it would cost about $7 million to build the new facility in Riverside, though that amount also includes the costs of demolishing the old bus barn in Riverhead. She said the new garage would be significantly smaller than the current one, as the buses would be stored in an outdoor lot. In response to concerns about traffic, she said the buses would leave the facility at around 6 a.m. on school days and can use Route 105 to avoid the traffic circle. In the afternoon, the buses are back in the lot by about 4:30 p.m.
The superintendent attended a Bay View Pines Civic Association meeting on Friday in Flanders to field questions from concerned community members. Janice Jay Young, the president of the association, said the meeting attracted about 35 community members and leaders from various local civics organizations.
Ms. Young said she opposes the plan and criticized the district for “taking advantage of a less affluent neighborhood.”
“We find it very difficult to understand why our school district would consider storing and repairing its fleet of buses in an environmentally sensitive ground ater zone, particularly when only a tiny portion of that fleet will actually serve the Southampton portion of the school district,” Mr. Bender wrote in a letter to the Riverhead Board of Education.
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst sent a letter to Ms. Carney on Tuesday expressing her opposition to the plan because she said it would hurt the town’s ability to market the remaining enterprise zone lots to other businesses, and would cause “undue tax burdens on the Flanders/Riverside residents.”
“I realize that the Riverhead School District must accommodate its expanding enrollment and provide for the future, but it must not be at the expense of a community that has long struggled with decline, and is now, with the town’s and Suffolk County’s help, at the brink of revival and renewal,” she stated in the letter. “I urge you to reconsider this flawed proposal.”