E.W. school board to appeal court decision on village permit for fence

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East Williston School Board Mark Kamberg said Tuesday that the district plans on appealing an Oct. 4 court decision mandating the district to file for a local zoning permit with the Village of East Williston for a fence project at Northside Elementary Schoo. (Photo by Tom McCarthy)

The East Williston school district plans to appeal a court decision requiring it to file for a local zoning permit over plans for a 6-foot fence at Northside Elementary School, school board President Mark Kamberg said Tuesday.

The conflict between the Village of East Williston and the district is over the height of the fence. The current plans for the aluminum fence would violate the village code’s 4-foot maximum.

“The Board acknowledges that the ruling by the judge of the lower court was not in the district’s favor. The Board of Education believes that the ruling was not correct,” Kamberg said in an email. “We have evaluated the options available to the District and we are going to continue to try and protect our students and staff, therefore, the Board of Education has determined that it will appeal the decision and order of Judge Gianelli issued on October 4, 2019.”

The height and design of the fence were determined after work sessions, deliberations and input from community members, representatives from the Village of East Williston, the Nassau County Department of Homeland Security, representatives from the Nassau County Police Department’s 3rd Precinct, consultations with the school district’s insurance carrier and the district’s architect, Kamberg said.

Kamberg said that it is “the district’s belief” that a 6-foot fence would serve as a needed security barrier to protect students and staff from third parties, including possible abductors, intruders and trespassers.

“We respectfully request the patience of the community as the Board of Education pursues its legal remedies,” Kamberg said.

Village Attorney Jeffrey Blinkoff said previously that the district has 30 days from the Oct. 4 decision to appeal. If the district decided to do that, Blinkoff said, then a decision on the appeal would take about two years.

Mayor Bonnie Parente said at an Oct. 15 village board meeting that the state Supreme Court had ruled that the school district must file a local zoning permit with the Village of East Williston over the fence project.

The decision came in a lawsuit filed by 19 East Williston residents against the school district challenging its claim that no village permit was required for construction to move forward.

Justice Sharon Gianelli ruled that the school district must abide by local zoning rules because there are no conflicting state education law requirements in this case.

“We do not like or dislike the fence,” Parente said. The village’s argument is that it is merely asking for the fence to meet village zoning standards.

In an Aug. 23 newsletter sent to residents by village Clerk Marie Hausner, she wrote that the village board, through its legal counsel, sent a letter to the East Williston school district in May asking it to file an application for a permit and comply with the village zoning requirements.

Rather than doing so, the school district initiated legal action (an Article 78 proceeding in court) to require the withdrawal of the village’s letter, Hausner wrote.

“There is no legal obligation of the district to file for a second building permit,” Sheahan said, adding that the village board was “well aware that that is not a requirement.”

At a Sept. 9 Board of Education meeting, Diane Castonguay, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, said that a judge had temporarily halted construction of the fence.

Construction of the fence started on Aug. 8 after the district got approval from the state.

Questions of transparency were raised by residents attending the Sept. 9 meeting after a PowerPoint presentation by Castonguay omitted a May 7 letter from the state Education Department.

Maureen Chappo, an East Williston resident and one of the petitioners on the residents’ lawsuit against the school district, said a May 7 letter that was sent to the district by Rosanna T. Groff, a coordinator with the Education Department’s Office of Facilities Planning, was omitted from the presentation.

Groff’s letter said that the department’s approval of the school’s building project “is separate and distinct from any local zoning approval” with specific reference to the fence and that “the district is advised to resolve any potential local zoning issues related to this project directly with the Village of East Williston.”

John Sheahan, an attorney representing the district, addressed the May 7 letter during the Sept. 9 board meeting. Sheahan said the letter had been “mischaracterized.”

“There is also a recent letter from the state Education Department clarifying their May 7 letter,” Sheahan said. “There is no requirement by the state Education Department. There’s nothing directing or admonishing the district to file for a building permit with the village.”

The district’s more detailed timeline included another letter from Groff that she wrote at the request of the district’s attorneys to “clarify the purpose of my letter to you dated May 7, 2019, which was written in response to correspondence received by the Village of East Williston dated April 16, 2019.”

Groff wrote that the purpose of the letter was to “alert the school district that there may be additional local zoning approval required” and to suggest that the district should consult directly with the Village of East Williston.

Groff wrote that the May 7 letter was not meant to either confirm or deny that adhering to the village zoning code was required.

“My letter was not intended to direct or admonish the District and took no position as to whether or not local zoning approval was required under the circumstances,” Groff wrote.

Sheahan has argued in the past that the April 11 approval by the Education Department is all that is required for the project to move forward.

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