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Riverhead school board member looks to renew EPCAL talks

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09/17/2015 9:00 AM |

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As an increasing number of students continue to enroll in the Riverhead school district more quickly than administrators ever anticipated, school board member Greg Meyer wants to renew talks between the district and the town about building a new school at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

Mr. Meyer briefly discussed the idea at last Tuesday’s meeting and asked that the district explore its options, especially since the school board finalized a deal in June 2014 to sell property it owned on Tuthill Lane in Aquebogue to Paumanok Vineyards for $651,000, a move that will allow the winery to expand operations.

“What we did with the Tuthill property was the best thing to do,” Mr. Meyer said of the district’s decision to sell the land instead of building a school. “Twenty or 30 years ago it may have been a decent idea, but now it’s really not the best area to put a school.”

Originally purchased for $34,000 in 1965 for the purpose of building a school, the Tuthill Lane land was leased to sod farmers by the district for years after it decided not to build a school there.

The Tuthill Lane property can only be used for agricultural uses since the district sold the development rights to Suffolk County in May 2012 for $1.33 million. The district then transferred proceeds from the sale to a reserve account dedicated to relocating its bus garage.

Now that the district doesn’t have the land to build another school — and many families have continued to settle within the district in recent years — Mr. Meyer said he fears “having kids come to school and not having a place to put them.”

“It’s all about the kids,” he said. “I just don’t want [the EPCAL land] to go by because we got rid of our land at Tuthill and, right now, enrollment is not slowing down.”

In recent years, the district has experienced a particular influx in children coming from outside of the country. The district had about 875 English as a Second Language students at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, the News-Review previously reported. By comparison, the district had only 378 students in its ESL program a decade ago. During the 2013-14 school year — the most recent year overall district enrollment numbers were available — total enrollment had increased by 385 students since 2003-04.

When asked for comment about the idea of gifting land to the school district, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said he believes “that ship has sailed.”

“We only have 600 acres to sell there,” he said. “They should have asked us for that long ago.”

About 10 years ago, there were several discussions about the district’s future and some ideas came after the school board’s space committee and the town identified 50 acres at EPCAL for the district to expand upon.

But at the time, Mr. Meyer said, the district wanted to relocate its bus garage there and build recreational facilities — not a new school. The YMCA had also expressed an interest in the property, he added.

After the town reviewed its records, it determined that the land could only be used for educational purposes, like building a school, Mr. Meyer said.

“At the time, we weren’t looking to do a school,” he said. “I’ll use [Mr. Walter’s] terms — that ship has already sailed because it didn’t make sense for us to build a new school. Now we’re back in that position where we might need that 50 acres to build a school in the future.

“I just want to talk to the town again to see what our options are with revisiting the 50 acres that was talked about way back when,” Mr. Meyer continued.

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