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In Sag Harbor, Marsden Street Mess Comes to a Head

Thu, 05/04/2023 - 10:02

Community remains divided over land buys, the land’s use, and the facts

Grover Pagano has been an outspoken critic of the Sag Harbor School District’s proposal to buy land on Marsden Street for future school uses, asking at last week’s forum for “assurances” from the board that “the historic village will be intact” if the project proceeds.
Christine Sampson

On Tuesday, May 16, voters in the Sag Harbor School District will be asked to say yes or no to the purchase of five wooded properties on Marsden Street for a total of $9.425 million.

The proposal has been a hot topic for several months, starting in September 2022 when the district tabled a bond referendum that would have facilitated substantial renovations of Mashashimuet Park up to modern standards for school athletic facilities. The focus then shifted to a joint venture with Southampton Town to buy the Marsden Street properties.

That deal collapsed in March. Instead of abandoning the plan altogether, the school district shifted its focus to buying the land on its own, turning down $6 million from the town to attempt to raise most of the money through a bond in the same amount. It also would need to withdraw $3.425 million from the capital reserve fund, which needs voter approval.

“The opportunity to acquire land adjacent to the school district simply does not come around all that often. We have a limited footprint,” Jeff Nichols, the district superintendent, said during last week’s question-and-answer forum. Buying the properties would “increase flexibility as it relates to facilities now and in the future.”

What’s at Stake?

Short answer: a lot.

The school district likely gets just one shot at acquiring this land; Pat Trunzo III, who owns it under the name Marsden Street Properties L.L.C., has previously stated that he would refile development applications to build houses there should the district’s bond referendum and capital-spending proposition fail.

Residents worry about rising property taxes and how nearby school facilities with intensive uses would impact the values of their houses. On Long Island, it’s widely accepted that good school districts — including Sag Harbor — attract

new families, which often increases property values.

Others are concerned about the environmental impacts of the potential clearing of the land — basically, what’s to become of the existing animal habitats and other natural features?

Sag Harbor has billed the Marsden Street proposal as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Surrounded almost entirely by houses, its existing school facilities don’t have much, if any, room for expansion. Mr. Nichols said other possible uses of the Marsden Street properties — which, when taken together, total just over four acres — include a “wet lab” for science programs, a site for a new gymnasium, and, yes, possibly a sports field and related facilities.

As the debate rages, legal fees continue to mount: Mr. Nichols said last week that there are “several lawsuits” in progress. Ultimately, through the district’s established budget and surplus money, taxpayers foot the bill for those expenses.

And the ongoing dialogue has sharply divided an otherwise tight-knit community in ways that will likely reverberate for some time. “Let’s bring the community back together, regardless of the outcome — please,” implored Caroline Fell, a Sag Harbor resident who was one of about 50 people to attend the district’s Q.-and-A. session on April 26.


Who’s Telling the Truth?

It was clear from the April 26 forum that some in the community remain unconvinced that the district is telling the truth when it says it’s keeping options open for future uses of the Marsden Street properties.

After all, the public conversation surrounding the effort from the get-go centered around a sports facility. Between September 2022 and March 2023, the plan was to partner with Southampton Town on the purchase; about 30 percent would have come from Sag Harbor and the rest from the town’s community preservation fund.

“Our job is to make sure that the accurate information is out there,” Mr. Nichols said, “so when people render their vote, they are rendering their vote based on factual information.”

The May 16 ballot measure — officially Proposition 2 — is for $9.425 million for acquisition of the land only. It is not for $16 million, as opponents assert it will cost when development is taken into consideration.

The district has also axed a plan for a parking lot, while acknowledging improved parking is still a facility need across the campus in general. Mr. Nichols said the idea of a 72-car parking lot originated with a request for a parking plan from Southampton Town while the $6 million C.P.F. deal was still on the table. Opponents of the Marsden Street proposal have accused him of lying on this matter.

Some opponents also assert that the district is trying to buy land with toxic soils and water-drainage issues.

“Taxpayer money was spent to make sure that we’re buying a good property, a clean property. . . . That was money well spent, in my opinion,” said Brian DeSesa, the board vice president, who happens to be a land-use attorney. (His term is up in June. He is not running for re-election.)

Those speaking out against the plan say they want more information on how the properties will be used. Among them is Megan Toy, a Pierson graduate. “Why does the board of education think it’s appropriate to move forward without providing sufficient information to taxpayers?” she asked.


Precedents Exist

Over the last 10 school years, at least three New York State school districts bought property for future expansion needs, finding widespread support each time.

One of them was Sag Harbor itself, which in 2016 bought the former Stella Maris Regional School from the Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre. Once it revealed its interest in buying the property, the school district surveyed residents and proposed five possible uses for the building. It ultimately became an early-childhood educational facility that’s been getting rave reviews since it opened in 2020.

In 2012, according to Newsday, residents in the East Quogue School District voted 414-to-173 to buy a piece of adjacent land that district officials had billed as being needed “for future expansion.” The price topped $400,000.

And in 2022, the upstate district of Schuylerville, near Saratoga Springs, bought a nearby piece of property when the community approved the deal by a margin of 400-to-87. The superintendent was quoted in news reports at the time as saying, “Anytime the district can purchase land that is adjacent to school property is a great opportunity.”

At least one precedent also exists for a district to repeal bond issuances and sell property when building projects don’t work out. Examiner Media of Westchester County reported in April that in the Carmel School District, when cost estimates for a controversial new transportation facility rose dramatically, the school board voted to repeal most of the bond that was to finance the project, and the sale of the property is now underway.


What’s Next?

The district will hold its official budget and ballot proposition hearing on Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Pierson Middle and High School.

The budget plan is for $48.06 million. The associated tax-levy increase, 1.88 percent, is one of the lowest proposed increases among Long Island’s 124 school districts. Administrators say the budget preserves all programs, activities, services, and infrastructure needs.

The Marsden Street proposition, according to Jennifer Buscemi, the school business administrator, would increase taxes on a house valued at $1 million by about $18.14 in the 2024-25 school year. In the four years following, the impact would be around $28 to $29, and when the short-term borrowing is officially converted to a 15-year bond, it would be around $41. Those numbers are based on current interest rates and the district’s current Aa1 Moody’s Investors Service credit rating, which is just one notch below the best possible rating.

Another ballot proposition asks the community to approve the creation of a new kind of reserve account, dedicated to technology and security needs, not to exceed $10 million over 10 years. This would not increase taxes, district officials said.

The fourth ballot measure would establish a publicly levied tax on behalf of the Sag Harbor Historical Museum, formerly known as the historical society. The proposed amount, $75,000, would increase taxes by about $6.48 for the year.

The Marsden Street proposal has the potential to bring voters out in record numbers. Voting is from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the Pierson gym on May 16.



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