by Barrett Seaman –
Public school capital bond issues to fund projects beyond the scope of a district’s current accounts budgets come up only every decade or so. Irvington’s last one was in 2004, so it was not unexpected that the need for more money to pay for infrastructure improvements and security measures for the district’s three campuses would arise around now. After study by a committee representing the district’s various constituents, the Board of Education earlier this year published a laundry list of projects it estimated would require some $18 million in borrowed money. Village residents reacted positively to most of the items on that list—especially those related to improvements in security and safety for students, their top concern according to surveys.
One item, however, drew a sharply negative reaction from neighbors living in proximity to the Dows Lane Elementary School. In order to provide an enclosed storage and maintenance facility for the district’s three pickup trucks, a dump truck, snowplowing equipment and lawnmowers, the committee proposed building a 3,500-square-foot, 17-foot high garage on the site of a basketball court behind the school—a location adjacent to homes on the south side of the Spiro Park neighborhood and in one case only 47 feet from the property line of another resident.
The building was needed, said the district, because the grounds crew had no other place indoors to repair and maintain their equipment, some pieces of which sit outside in various weather conditions, shortening their life spans and thus increasing costs.
Alarmed neighbors went into action, sharing opinions and strategies on the Spiro Park Association of Neighbors listserv as well as on Irvington’s 10533 Facebook page. They also began to show up in numbers at subsequent Board of Education meetings to voice their objections. They argued that the garage would destroy a popular neighborhood “green space” play area; that it would threaten the root systems of a number of stately trees—including a nearly 60-inch in diameter copper beech; that the pollution generated by its gas-powered vehicles would endanger children playing nearby, and that its size and purpose were incompatible with the residential character of the location.
One of the more compelling voices speaking in opposition to the plan was that of Pat Natarelli, chair of the village’s Planning Board and recently retired Chief Planner for Westchester County. Noting that the building would be the equivalent in size of two Shell gas stations like the one at the top of Main Street, Natarelli contended that the structure “is grossly out of scale and character with the development in the area and is inconsistent with the surrounding land uses.” Had such a proposal come before his village Planning Board (which has no jurisdiction in school issues), he suggested, it would be rejected.
Residents also offered alternative sites—most of them near the main high school/middle school campus atop Heritage Hill. The board and its Buildings and Grounds committee members countered that they had examined all these alternatives and found them wanting. For a few weeks in January and February, it looked like the board was sticking with the proposed plan. With a March 5 date for a vote to go forward with the overall $18 million bond issue, it seemed unlikely that they would be able to come up with an alternative. And public comments by board members indicated that they were reluctant to sever the $1.7 million garage request from the rest of the package.
Yet somewhere in the process, hearts and minds were moved. When the Board of Education convened February 26 at a meeting before a familiar crowd of residents, their review of alternative sites had a different tone. Speaking on behalf of the Buildings and Grounds Committee charged with evaluating sites, board member Maria Kashkin ultimately revealed that they were re-opening the issue and were now looking at splitting the garage function into two components: one in back of the main high school building where equipment and a pickup truck could be stored and maintained, and another for grounds equipment storage and maintenance somewhere on the Dows Lane property (but not on the site of the basketball court). Members made it clear that they had not yet come up with a fixed plan on specific sites but that they were now looking at a solution that was conceptually different from what they had initially proposed.
While it was not an ideal solution for the school’s grounds crew, the revised proposal was Solomonic in many ways. First, it took the beloved basketball court out of the equation. Second, it acknowledged that the activities envisioned in the garage could be performed in smaller, less obtrusive structures.
Various members of the audience came to the microphone to comment. Some suggested sites other than those proposed as alternatives; some wanted to know if the overall proposal would now include re-paving the existing court, where numerous cracks reveal its age. Others questioned whether the open-ended nature of the revised plan didn’t leave the door open for the board to return to the original plan so late in the process that the public would have no time to react.
But the majority of speakers said “thank you” to the board for listening and responding to community opinion. Said parent Erik Oley, “It is really admirable that you listened to the community and that you changed.”
The compliment was reciprocated. Board chair Michael Hanna and other members praised members of the community for voicing their concerns in a civilized and constructive manner.
Much work must be done, however. The Buildings and Grounds committee needs to assign costs to the various alternative sites for the next meeting, March 5. The entire bond proposal must be finalized by the end of March—by law, 45 days before a public referendum scheduled to be held May 19.