State judge upholds North Side fence halt, E.W. school district must file village permit

State judge upholds North Side fence halt, E.W. school district must file village permit
East Williston Mayor Bonnie Parente, pictured in 2019, postponed Tuesday's meeting. (Photo by Tom McCarthy)

The state Supreme Court has ruled that the East Williston school district must file a local zoning permit with the Village of East Williston over a proposed 6-foot aluminum fence at the North Side Elementary School, Mayor Bonnie Parente said Tuesday. 

The conflict between the village and the district is over the height of the fence. The current plans for the aluminum fence have it standing at 6 feet, violating the village code’s four-foot maximum.

“The school district has been ordered to halt construction and that has been upheld until a permit is sought and issued,” Parente said. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to get a permit or seek one.” 

Village Attorney Jeffrey Blinkoff said 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. He said that the lawsuit filed against the village by the district will likely end.

Mark Kamberg, president of the East Williston school board, declined to comment on the court decision and what the district’s next move was. He said that the court’s decision will be discussed at the district’s Oct. 28 public meeting.

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 August newsletter sent to residents by the East Williston village clerk, Marie Hausner, she wrote that the village board, through its legal counsel, sent a letter to the East Williston school district “months ago” 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.

Parente said that while the village cannot ask the district to take down what has already been built at the school, the district has been stalled from doing any further work on the fence.

Parente said that the plans would have to go to the village’s zoning board, whch would make the decision, not the Board of Trustees. Parente said that the zoning board could make conditions for permits that violate village code, but said, “I’m not suggesting this for that particular project.”

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 6-foot aluminum fence. 

“On Aug. 26, a judge issued a temporary restraining order so we had to halt all work and secure the site,” Castonguay said.

Construction of the fence, which is intended to improve security, 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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