In under two weeks’ time, Sag Harbor School District voters will be asked if they approve of a $9.4 million proposal to buy five residential vacant lots on Marsden Street understood — but no longer explicitly said — to be for an expansion of school athletic fields. We have concerns.
The land comprises about 3.3 acres of woods on one side of the street and a roughly three-quarter acre piece on the other. The school district has about $3.4 million in a reserve fund it would put toward the deal; the remainder would ultimately be paid for in taxes to pay back a $6 million bond — with interest.
There is a time crunch for the district. The East Hampton developer who owns the properties has said that if the bond proposition fails, he will renew his earlier applications to build houses there. If so, then the school district gets one shot at this, and it’s May 16, which is tight, but the district chose that date to get the best possible voter turnout in conjunction with the school budget vote.
Were the district to be successful, it could develop the Marsden Street lots how it liked, free from the restrictions imposed by Sag Harbor Village law. A more restrictive community preservation fund buy with the Town of Southampton would have been subject to strict limits, but it fizzled.
In general, school districts have not often been ideal stewards of the sites they occupy, and this is a real worry in the tightly packed village. The most-likely alternative, should the vote fail on May 16, would be high-end houses, annoying perhaps, but ultimately with a lower cumulative impact. One of the ironies in all of this is that the reason the Marsden Street woodland went undisturbed so far is that it is mostly a low-lying swale and marginal for homebuilding — or playing fields — without significant filling and grading.
Raising eyebrows, too, is the district’s refusal to put the entire plan in front of the voters. This has left many opponents with the sneaking suspicion that it would come back later with another bond vote, this time for artificial turf, parking, and other amenities. This has created deeper fissures within the greater Sag Harbor community. The lack of clarity about its long-term objectives for the land could well leave the district vulnerable to claims of unlawful procedure in any lawsuit brought by opponents in the event of a successful “yes” vote on the initial real estate purchase. This is known as segmentation, which, under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, could be a problem. Voters should almost always reject any plan that, like this one, relies on officials saying, “trust us.”
One piece of this that has not been adequately explained is why Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman has said repeatedly that a community preservation fund open space buy is out of the question. Unless this is some version of political gamesmanship, his refusing to discuss that possibility is irresponsible. In fact, three of the properties are already included on Southampton Town’s list of potential purchases. Southampton Town has about $240 million in unused preservation fund money, which could be put toward at least buying the contiguous acres, which seems a better choice than handing the school district a blank check.