Judge halts E.W. school fence until Sept. 25 court date

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District Attorney John Sheahan said the East Williston School District does not need to file for a second building permit. (Photo by Tom McCarthy)

A judge has temporarily halted construction of a 6-foot aluminum fence at the North Side Elementary School in a legal conflict over the fence’s height between the Village of East Williston and the East Williston school district.

“On Aug. 26, a judge issued a temporary restraining order so we had to halt all work and secure the site,” Diane Castonguay, the district’s assistant superintendent for business,  said at a meeting Monday.

Construction of the fence, which is intended to improve security, started on Aug. 8 after the district got approval from the state.

The two parties are due back in state Supreme Court Sept. 25, said John Sheahan, an attorney representing the district.

The conflict is over the height of the fence, which the village contends will violate the zoning code because it would be two feet above the maximum.

Sheahan argued that approval by the state Education Department is all that is required.

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 he village board was “well aware that that is not a requirement.”

Mark Kamberg, president of the school board, said the legal fees are up to $56,000 for the district. The fence lawsuit was not included in the district’s litigation budget and the board will have to transfer money to pay for it, he said.

Kamberg said that public school districts like East Williston file their permits with the state only and must pass its legal requirements and mandates.

“We are within full compliance with the law,” Kamberg said. “We apply for our permits through the state at the Education Department as this is a public institution of the state.”

The district has done work on a new first-grade wing, playground and roof for the elementary school in the past couple of years without having to file a village building permit, Kamberg said.

It was reported in May that the school board sought bids for a 6-foot-tall black estate fence to surround the school and a 3-foot stone retaining wall in front of the building.

The village board said at an Aug. 19 meeting that the fence must be no more than 4 feet high to comply with local code and the retaining wall and location of gate openings will impede emergency vehicles from entering the property.

While the board said it could not comment on the specifics of the pending litigation during the Aug. 19 meeting, Mayor Bonnie Parente said of the district: “They are not going about this as they should be. They are not being forthcoming.”

Village Trustee Christopher Siciliano said that in a June 20 meeting with school administrators, requested changes to the location of gate openings were agreed upon but the school board later changed its plans and reneged on the agreement.

“The village has asked the Board of Education to adhere to the village code,” said the village attorney, Jefferey Blinkoff.

“We are responding appropriately in the legal action,” Hausner said.

Hausner said that the village is not for or against the fence, but just wants it to adhere to code.

“In sum, there are residents of EW who want the fence. There are residents of EW who do not feel the need for a fence,” Hausner said. “The Village Board of EW is not and cannot take a position on whether the EWSD erects a fence.”

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