A parking lot at a school no longer even used by the is at the center of a storm of controversy involving neighbors living nearby.
The former Fern Place School, now leased to a private agency that serves students with Down syndrome, has been causing parking and traffic issues in the otherwise quiet neighborhood about a quarter-mile north of Old Country Road, numerous residents said.
“We want to stress this point: We have no problem with the kids,” said Meredith Lewin, of Orchard Street. “It’s the behavior of the parents and the school district that has us concerned.”
"In the past few years, as the number of programs, staff, and students increased, the traffic situation has become terrible," said Jason Rosenthal, another Orchard Street neighbor. "The school is now growing too big for the space they have."
The district says it is sympathetic to the neighborhood’s problems and has proposed expanding the Fern Place parking lot to alleviate some of the concerns. It has proposed spending $80,000 in the 2012-13 budget to create a new lot with 30 or more new parking spaces directly in front of the school.
Some residents say that solution may simple create more problems.
Lewin now owns the house she grew up in, a pristine split-level directly across from the school she attended as a girl. In those days, the elementary school at Orchard Street and Fern Place was typical of other neighborhood schools sprouting from the dusty Long Island fields. In the course of the post World War II decade, sleepy Plainview was transformed into a booming bedroom community.
That sudden shift in Long Island's landscape can be seen from Fern Place, whose property backs up on another grade school, still in use by the district. Pasadena was built on one of Plainview's last remaining open farm fields. Lewin remembers it from her childhood.
But over the years Plainview has changed again. Now there are many fewer kids. The district closed Fern Place School more than a decade ago and leased it to the , or ACDS. The agency pays the district $400,000 per year for the rent. Its lease runs through 2018.
But the private school draws cars and small buses from all over Long Island, flooding neighborhood streets and forming bottlenecks at the entrance. (Lewin has documented the traffic snarls in photos; some are attached to this story.) The existing parking isn’t sufficient to accommodate the staff, forcing cars to park on Orchard Street and other nearby streets, neighbors said.
And, when special events take place at Fern Place, the overflow of parents’ cars often spills onto the front lawn of the building. In addition, the building has added a general day-care facility for children from 6-months to 5-years-old. That, too, has increased the traffic on mornings and afternoons.
All of which frustrates neighbors, who say their property values and quality of life is diminished by the traffic. They also complain of noise and litter.
Ryan J. Ruf, the school district’s assistant superintendent for business, said the district's proposal calls for safety barriers and a hedgerow to hide the new parking lot from the view of neighbors on Orchard Street.
“We are receptive to the needs of the neighbors and we hear their concerns,” said Ruf, echoing sentiments of at a recent Board of Education meeting. “We are willing to work with them to find a solution.” Both men said they are open to continuing discussions with the neighbors.
The district considers Fern Place an asset that may be of value to the district in the future. The tenants pay $400,000 to the district annually in rent, while the district has agreed to maintain its property. Ruf said the cost of the proposed new lot represents only a fraction of the district's $137 million proposed budget. The parking lot expenditure is not intended to benefit the ACDS, but the neighbors, he said.
Lewin and others suggested that a logical solution is to expand the parking lot onto the adjoining playing field of Pasadena School – literally the left-field fence of a softball diamond dividing the two school properties. That way, the new lot wouldn't face the homes on Orchard Street and would adjoin Fern Place's existing lot.
Ruf said the district discussed that option, but is reluctant to take away a portion of a playing field and replace it with pavement.
Lewin and others fear there is no viable solution. The proposed new lot would be directly in front of the school and would require changes in the traffic circle at the school’s entrance. She fears it could pose a danger to the kids and a continued burden to her neighbors.
"Not only is my tax money going to be used improperly," said Rosenthal, "this new parking lot, which will be an eyesore, will also decrease the value of our homes."
“I don’t want to look out my window and see a parking lot,” Lewin added.