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Sag Harbor Wants to Take on Marsden Street Purchase on Its Own

Wed, 03/15/2023 - 20:53
Dozens of people spoke out Tuesday in favor of the Marsden Street field project, including several Pierson and Sag Harbor Elementary School students.

The Sag Harbor School District announced plans late Wednesday to attempt an outright purchase of the properties on Marsden Street that have up to now been on the table for a joint purchase with Southampton Town, which held two lengthy public hearings on the matter over the last two weeks. 

The purchase price -- $9.325 million for a total of five properties -- is the same as the price negotiated along with the town, but the key difference is that the school district would put up a bond referendum to make up the $6 million that the town had offered from its community preservation fund. The rest of the money had already been approved by voters in November 2022, coming out of a reserve account. The matter has been embroiled in controversy for several months.

"The Marsden Street properties present an opportunity for the school to acquire a large piece of property adjacent to Pierson Middle/High School that will address facility needs now and in the future," Jeff Nichols, the district superintendent, wrote in an email to the community Wednesday night.

The fact that the Southampton Town Board did not vote Tuesday to approve the C.P.F. purchase "has presented the school district with a choice of purchasing the property on its own, or letting the seller place it back on the market. After careful consideration, the Board of Education has decided to proceed with scheduling a vote to independently purchase the five properties."

Mr. Nichols said in the brief message that the bond will appear as an additional proposition on the May 16 budget ballot along with the district's operating budget and school board candidates. He also noted that without a contribution from the C.P.F., the Marsden Street facility would not be subject to the same conditions the town had set forth.

On Tuesday, the temperature of the town's public hearing was red hot, as supporters of the possible joint land purchase between the town and the school district turned out in full force -- many wearing the school colors and carrying signs -- to state their case for building a sports field and related facilities there.

Even though the town board closed the public hearing on the use of the community preservation fund toward the Marsden Street purchase, officials said a formal vote on its approval is still at least two months away -- and possibly as much as eight months. That's because the town intends to compile its own environmental study under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, known as SEQRA.

"Over a certain size in a historic district, [our] counsel has told us this is clearly a 'Type 1' action," Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said at the start of an approximately five-hour public hearing. That's in contrast to the school district's SEQRA report, he later explained, which considered a much simpler "unlisted" action for the purchase alone of the property rather than a full examination of the entire proposal. "Segmentation," as that is called, technically goes against SEQRA regulations.

Mr. Schneiderman said in a follow-up conversation Wednesday that the town is not trying to intentionally delay the process, as has been the criticism. "I've taken plenty of tough votes in my life. I'm not trying to delay this, I'm just trying to follow the law."

At stake are five valuable pieces of land -- four contiguous lots on the north side of Marsden Street plus one lot on the south side -- that sit directly adjacent to Pierson Middle and High School. Proponents of the athletic field plan have described the school district as "land poor," with inferior sports facilities compared to neighboring schools.

There was considerable speculation leading up to Wednesday's announcement that the school district might attempt to buy the four contiguous lots directly from Pat Trunzo, their current owner. The district was already in contract with Mr. Trunzo to buy the fifth property for a parking lot, although that appears to be contingent upon the successful purchase of the other four lots.

Councilwoman Cyndi McNamara spoke to that speculation on Tuesday. "This is not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is a once-in-forever opportunity for the school," she said. "You will never see a tract like this near the school again. Do you want to wait months out . . . or do you want to put up that bond in May and take on banking this land for the school district? That's certainly still in your purview to do."

Adding complexity to the situation, the district announced last Thursday during a special school board meeting that Mr. Schneiderman had contacted Mr. Nichols about exploring the use of the community preservation fund to buy development rights to Mashashimuet Park, the proceeds of which could then be used for upgrades to the athletic facilities there. The park is where the majority of Pierson's sports teams -- plus Little League teams -- play and practice. The school district was on the cusp of floating a $13.5 million bond for park renovations, but it was shelved in September when news of the Marsden Street proposal was revealed.

The Mashashimuet Park development-rights purchase was a suggestion originally made in 2021 by Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, who has taken considerable heat from Marsden Street supporters for the controversial way the public discourse has evolved.

The park board "takes their responsibilities very seriously and I appreciate them for that. The park is a wonderful piece of infrastructure and resource for the greater community," Mr. Schiavoni said Wednesday morning. "The lawyers -- ours and the park's -- we have to explore that further for any definitive action" on the possible purchase of development rights.

The park, which was deeded in seven separate parcels as a gift to the community by the philanthropist Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage in 1920, is zoned R-20, which suggests it could theoretically be developed with detached single-family homes, according to the Sag Harbor Village code.

Janine Rayano, president of the Mashashimuet Park board of trustees, confirmed via text message Wednesday that "the park and the town are working together to find out if the park can receive the benefit of C.P.F. funds."

Mr. Schneiderman said Wednesday that the Mashashimuet Park idea -- plus the suggestion of a scaled-down athletic facility on Marsden Street -- had been stated in an email marked "confidential" last week, but Mr. Nichols chose to disclose it anyway. Mr. Schneiderman also requested a postponement of the continuation of the Marsden Street hearing, which the district apparently did not agree to. Mr. Nichols could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"I was hoping that both sides would agree to an adjournment for one month rather than go through a process that might further divide the community," Mr. Schneiderman said. "It is a small community. We shop in the same shops and walk down the same sidewalks, and I know lots of people on both sides of this issue. It's going to take a lot of time to repair the rift down the middle."

That rift was evident Tuesday as 82 speakers chimed in -- some virtually and many who had waited in the basement of Southampton Town Hall for a turn to speak -- during the lengthy public hearing.

"Why is our school not deserving of plentiful support?" asked Michele Liot, a parent of two who helped rally Marsden Street supporters to attend the hearing. "What legacy do you want to leave? To the naysayers, it hurts my heart" when they "insist on preservation of appearance while fundamentally ignoring the needs of our school."

Many Marsden Street opponents reiterated points they had made previously about appropriate land use and environmental preservation within a historic district.

A handful of Sag Harbor students spoke up. "Nature and soccer are my two favorite things," said Bennett McEvoy, a fourth grader. "I have so much nature around me, but no place to play soccer."

Sophia Perri, vice president of the sixth-grade class at Pierson, said that driving long distances to practices and games in other communities takes a toll. "It may not sound like a lot of traveling but 45 minutes or an hour round trip regularly means fewer family dinners, less time for homework, and more stress for me. I hope you vote to help Pierson children and families like mine."

Among the speakers was Chase Mallia, a Pierson math teacher who is president of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, which weighed in with support for the Marsden Street field plan in December. Mr. Mallia called out the town board for repeatedly saying it was under the impression that the Marsden Street purchase would be for a "community park" and that it was unaware that the school wanted an athletic field. He referenced an email chain dating back to April of 2022, two months before the town sent a formal C.P.F. offer letter to the school district, in which Mr. Nichols specifically stated the goal was to "turn the lots into athletic fields to be used by our students after school."

"A 'community park' does not satisfy the needs that our teachers have expressed for our students," Mr. Mallia said. "It does not reduce safety concerns" of students walking to Mashashimuet Park with their backpacks and gear, often crossing dangerous intersections.

Mr. Mallia also revealed that he had been told by a town board member that the Marsden Street deal "was done," leading him to tell the teachers and other Marsden Street supporters that they didn't need to attend the first part of the public hearing on Feb. 28. Marsden Street opponents had dominated the discussion that day.

"There was definitely some confusion here," Mr. Schneiderman said Wednesday, "but I don't think there was any bad faith" on the town's part.

"It clearly has significant support, which we did not see at the first hearing," he later said.


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