Several residents criticized the Riverhead school board Tuesday night for failing to discuss with the public a plan to relocate the district’s bus maintenance and storage facilities to an industrial area in Riverside.
Measures to push that plan along will be go to voters on the May 21 budget and school board ballot in the form of two separate but related propositions.
Flanders resident and Bay View Pines Civic Association member Carl Iacone said the referendums should be defeated because a school bus facility’s tax exemption goes against a revitalization plan nearly a decade in the making in the Flanders and Riverside areas that aims to jump-start economic growth.
He also believes the bus facility’s proposed location, which is near the Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverside, poses health risks to students.
“Not one of you came out to the community to tell us what was going on,” he told the school board Tuesday night. “I think that’s an injustice to the community … The fumes that will get to those children, that’s disgraceful.”
Superintendent Nancy Carney has called the proposal the most fiscally responsible option to replace the crumbling bus barn now located between district athletic fields on Harrison Avenue in Riverhead.
The bus barn also houses the district’s transportation and maintenance departments. First built in 1920 to house horses, the barn has fallen into despair and plans on what to do with it has been put on the back burner due to budget constraints, she said.
“Our crew has done a great job with band-aiding and keeping things functioning over the years, but it is time as a district to figure out on how we’re going to move forward,” Ms. Carney said.
Proposition 1 on the school district ballot requests the creation of a transportation, maintenance and athletic fields capital reserve fund that would top out at $10 million.
The reserve fund’s first deposit would come from a sale to Suffolk County at district-owned farmland along Tuthills Lane in Aquebogue. Prior to the school board’s meeting, the Suffolk County Legislature approved the purchase of development rights at the property from the district for about $1.25 million.
The district originally bought the land in 1965 for $34,000 to build a school there. The school was never built, and the district had been leasing the land to sod farmers. In 2008, the district proposed using the land to build a bus garage and YMCA, but the plans were squashed in part by stiff community opposition.
Officials have considered using district-owned land on Tuthills Lane in Aquebogue and space at the EPCAL property in Calverton for the bus facility, however both locations were found to be too far removed from the center of the district to be a viable option, Ms. Carney said.
She has said the “athletic fields” portion of the Transportation, Maintenance and Athletic Fields Capital Reserve Fund name refers to the district’s desire to turn the current bus barn’s property into additional athletic fields. If the district moves forward with the plan, officials said environmental remediation work will need to be completed to clean up the property.
Proposition 2 calls for using some of the sale proceeds on the Aquebogue land to acquire two properties adjacent to Phillips Avenue Elementary School for no more than $480,000 combined. The district would use those properties to gain access to an industrial park in Riverside, and then to Route 24.
One of the two properties has been described by Ms. Carney as a largely useless (development-wise) 1.4-acre “paper road” that would be purchased for no more than $55,000, and the other is for an adjoining 1.5-acre parcel in the Riverside Enterprise Park — a small industrial park at the site of the old Flanders drive-in theater property.
Although district officials don’t plan to build anything on these properties, school buses leaving the facility would need to cross the two properties in order to reach Enterprise Zone Drive, which encircles the industrial park, and then make their way to Route 24, officials said.
Vincent Taldone, a Riverside-area civic leader and member of the Southampton Town Board’s Riverside economic development committee, said he learned about the Riverhead school board’s decision after reading about it in the Riverhead News-Review last month, and was upset no one from the district had sought community input during the planning process.
“If you’re planning to build something, or change something in a community, you come and tell them,” Mr. Taldone said in an interview prior to the meeting. “Whether they love it or not or throw tomatoes, you still tell them in advance. No one should be in a position like we were to say ‘We’ve never heard of this before and it’s already on the ballot.’”
Mr. Taldone, a city planner and executive board member of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, said he believes local community groups and elected officals could have helped the district choose a better location if it had reach out for input. He said his group is in favor of the capital reserve fund proposal and has helped local schools through toy and food drives, as well as student scholarships.
“We’re only opposed to this particular location,” he said. “They could have come to us and I would have said let’s pull the planners from the town and find other locations.”
Mr. Taldone and other members of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, Bay View Pines Civic Association and Riverside Revitalization Community Coalition told school board members that, although they support the savings plan to pay for a new bus facility, they are rallying residents together to vote down the referendum to relocate it in Riverside.
Ms. Carney, who also attended a community meeting about the plan Friday night in Flanders, stressed the plan isn’t set in stone, and that the district is “still looking at other options.”
“I appreciate some of the input Friday evening about the fact we do need to have real communication with our constituents,” she said. “I believe it’s something we’re dedicated to doing moving forward with this process.”