Future of Historic St. James firehouse uncertain

Future of Historic St. James firehouse uncertain

St. James Fire Department members to vote on whether to buy back Route 25A firehouse

The St. James firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

As ownership of a historic St. James landmark prepares to change hands again, residents are watching anxiously to know what its future holds.

The St. James Fire Department has been approached by the St. James Fire District about purchasing back the Route 25A firehouse. The firefighters will have to vote to approve the purchase, but the St. James community expressed concerns about the building’s future use at a Jan. 22 civic association meeting.

“I have dedicated myself to do many things to bring this community’s historic life alive again,” said Natalie Weinstein, owner of Uniquely Natalie Quality Consignment on Lake Avenue. “To lose this historic property for what it is would be a travesty.”

Glen Itzkowitz, chairman of the board of the St. James Fire Department, the 501(c)(3) organization consisting of those volunteers in the St. James fire and EMS services, said a date has not been set for the referendum on whether the fire department will purchase the building. When the department sold the firehouse to the district for $500,000 in 2013, there was a clause put into the sale agreement that the department was  to be given a first right to the property if it was ever put on the market.

“We want the property back,” Itkowitz said. “We think we can be the best stewards of that property as we’ve been the best stewards of that property since 1922.”

To lose this historic property for what it is would be a travesty.”
-Natalie Weinstein

In that year, a Nissequogue resident donated the land to the fire department to help house fire engines and equipment, which now fall under the oversight of the fire district. The fire department and district are two separate entities that work together.

While the Route 25A property is part of St. James Historic Corridor by New York State, according to fire department member Anthony Amato, this does not protect the building. It would require a local law against its demolition made by the Town of Smithtown.

Given the firehouse’s history, Itzkowitz said he personally would like to see it continue operating as a base for fire services. He admitted the 100-member strong volunteer department had not reached a determination on what to do with the property if it agreed to purchase it back.

Itzkowitz denied public rumors that the historic firehouse would be torn down or destroyed.

“It bothers me and so many members of the department that that is the sentiment that’s out there,” he said.

The St. James Fire District, consisting of publicly elected officials who are responsible for oversight of the St. James firehouses, fire and EMS service equipment, has made clear it does not plan to continue operating out of the Route 25A firehouse. Bill Kearney, a commissioner for the fire district, said it would have been closed Oct. 26, 2017, if not for pressure from Head of the Harbor Mayor Douglas Dahlgard. The village has a three-year contract for fire and ambulance services from St. James through Dec. 31 of this year.

The idea of consolidation is … to get the first piece of equipment out on the road as quickly as possible to get them to your house”
-St. James  Fire District Commissioner Bill Kearney

“I am not happy having response times lengthen by moving all operations down to  Woodlawn Avenue on the other side of the Long Island Rail Road tracks,” Dahlgard said. “It makes no sense to me.”

Kearney said Dahlgard and residents’ fears of increased response time if the Route 25A firehouse closes are unfounded. Volunteers responded to more than 1,400 alarms last year; according Kearney, only 96 were for incidents north of the railroad tracks. He said out of those 96 calls, crews from the historic Route 25A firehouse responded to only 38 due to a lack of personnel. Kearney said it’s a challenge at best, and hazardous for volunteers trying to navigate traffic to reach the historic firehouse to respond to a call, at worst. He claimed consolidating to one center, on Jefferson Avenue, will actually speed up response times.

“The idea of consolidation is … to get the first piece of equipment out on the road as quickly as possible to get them to your house,” the fire district commissioner said.

St. James residents saw their taxes for fire services increase for 2018, and Kearney said the failed bond votes have left the district with a Jefferson Avenue building in need of major repairs and upgrades to suit its needs.

But he highlighted that Head of the Harbor residents don’t pay the same taxes as St. James residents for emergency services, and actually pay less due to the negotiated contract. Kearney said he is hoping the district will be able to negotiate a “fair contract” with Dahlgard moving forward.

The Community Association of St. James said it had no position on the issue, but encouraged the fire district and departments to host a public forum on the issue.