Plan to replace ‘crumbling’ bus barn will go to Riverhead voters

Riverhead bus barn
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The bus barn on Harrison Avenue is used for mini-bus storage and houses the Riverhead School District’s transportation and maintenance departments.

Riverhead School District officials are hoping to set in motion a long-term plan that would see the district’s dilapidated bus barn at its main campus leveled and replaced with a new garage and maintenance facility outside Phillips Avenue School in Riverside.

And officials are taking the piggy bank approach.

The school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to add two propositions to the coming May 21 budget vote, both involving replacement of the bus barn off Osborn Avenue, which houses the transportation and maintenance departments and was first built in 1920 as a barn for horses.

“The garage is in extraordinarily bad repair and will be condemned in the future,” Superintendent Nancy Carney said at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. “As a district it’s our responsibility to have a plan going forward. We don’t want to be shortsighted.”

The first proposition will ask voter permission to establish what Ms. Carney described as a savings account, which will appear in Proposition No. 1 on the ballot as a Transportation, Maintenance and Athletic Fields Capital Reserve Fund that can reach $10 million over 10 years.

The reserve fund’s first big cash infusion, officials said, would come in the form of proceeds from district-owned farmland on Tuthills Lane in Aquebogue.

The district acquired 27 acres on the east side of Tuthills Lane for $34,000 in 1965 with the intention of building a school there, according to News-Review archives. That never happened, and a plan unveiled in 2008 to build a YMCA and bus barn on the property never came to fruition either, due to opposition from neighbors.

The district is now planning to sell development rights at the land to Suffolk County, a measure that would ensure the property can only be used for agricultural purposes. After that happens, and Ms. Carney is confident it will, the district would sell the actual property to a private farm operation.

Although a potential sales price was not disclosed, the board in May 2012 unanimously approved a resolution agreeing to sell development rights at the property to the county for $1.3 million.

“This is a long-term plan [involving] the sale of the property at Tuthills,” Ms. Carney explained to the board and meeting attendees Tuesday night. “I did meet with [Suffolk County Legislator] Al Krupski last week to talk about” the county acquiring the development rights.

“He’s very hopeful to introduce legislation to do so,” she said.

The reserve fund would also be added to through other means as the years progress, and as board members allocate money and plan future budgets.

A second pitch that will go to voters in May, called Ballot Proposition No. 2, also involves the bus barn and Tuthills Lane land proceeds.

That proposition will ask for permission to use Tuthills money to purchase two properties adjacent to Phillips Avenue Elementary School for no more than $480,000 combined.

One property was 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 what’s called Riverside Enterprise Park — a small industrial park at the site of the old Flanders drive-in theater property. According to the proposition, that would be purchased for no more than $425,000.

Although district officials don’t plan to build anything on these properties, the district needs them if school officials want to move forward with plans to build a new garage for its bus fleet at Phillips Avenue Elementary School property.  The 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.

Ms. Carney said the district does not want to be running buses through residential areas, and this route would be all-industrial land.

She also stressed the propositions are all about planning, and nothing would be happening overnight.

“One of the criticisms we’ve faced is that we as a district never had plans in place for long-term maintenance,” she said early on at the meeting in the Riverhead High School auditorium. “And the bus garage was something that was taken out of the [voter-approved $78 million infrastructure improvement bond]. Through this, we will be able to have a saving plan as to what to do with the bus garage.”

But, she added, given the poor state of the bus barn, she hopes a new barn does get built much sooner than in 10 years.

The school board could also decide not to build a new barn on the Phillips Avenue property, she noted.

“So, as we go forward, we can decide to choose to sell the land [in Riverside],” she said, “but in the meantime we have established a plan that makes a lot of sense. It’s cost affective and won’t affect residents.”

Experts have informed school officials it would be cheaper to build a new garage rather than rehab the old barn, she said.

Resident Doreen Moore of Calverton, who toured the bus barn and other buildings during her time on the committee that helped hammer out the $78 million improvement bond proposition approved in 2011, spoke out in support of the plans for the bus barn.

“When I went through this building, I could not believe what I saw,” she recalled. “I really think the district is doing the right thing at putting this to the taxpayers at no expense.”

Ms. Carney also explained during a presentation that the athletic fields part of the Transportation, Maintenance and Athletic Fields Capital Reserve Fund name was included because district officials ultimately hope to use the property of the current bus barn for athletic fields.

Resident and school board watchdog Laurie Downs pointed out that the land is likely laden with pollutants.

“Absolutely,” Ms. Carney responded. “That’s been looked into in the overall cost. We don’t know what we’re going to find under there.”

Ms. Carney said the bus barn had fallen into such a bad state, and is “crumbling” mainly “because it doesn’t affect students directly.”

“It’s always something we’ve pulled out of the budget,” she said, adding small measures have been made to keep the barn usable and safe. “We have a very competent maintenance staff and we are constantly making sure [things are safe] and using Band-Aids.”

In other school board news, two seats on the seven-member Riverhead school board are up for re-election this year, those of Amelia Lantz and Jeff Falisi.

Applications to run for school board are available at the district office at 700 Osborn Avenue.

The deadline for the unpaid position is April 22. Terms run for three years.

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