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Lake Avenue

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.

A rendering of what the front of the proposed new St. James firehouse would look like. Image from St. James Fire District

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Firefighters are known for running into danger, but it can be difficult to get to the scene when firefighters are facing significant risk simply getting to their trucks.

St. James fire commissioners are asking residents to consider a $12.25 million capital bond project to build a new 22,458-square-foot Jefferson Avenue facility Sept. 19.

“We are not looking to build a luxurious firehouse, as other communities have,” St. James Fire District Chairman Lawrence Montrose wrote in a letter with other commissioners. “We are simply looking to provide our dedicated volunteers with the basic and modern resources they need to effectively do their job — a job that protects and serves the residents of this community in their greatest times of need.”

The proposal being voted on in the St. James Fire District includes tearing down the Jefferson Avenue firehouse and replacing the structure with one nearly three times as large. Photo from Google Maps

The fire district’s existing Jefferson Avenue facility sustained significant damage in an August 2016 storm. The building’s pre-existing infrastructure issues allowed 6 to 18 inches of water to rise up through the floors, flooding the building, according to the St. James Fire District commissioners through a spokesperson. The flood caused cracks to the weight-bearing walls in the truck bay and worsened stress cracks in the fire chief and commissioner’s offices, in addition to plumbing and electrical damage.

Since the flood, Jefferson Avenue volunteer firefighters have been getting into their gear in one building before running across the parking lot to get on a truck. While this is happening, the fire commissioners said other volunteers are often still entering the parking lot, creating a major safety concern. Volunteers are in danger of being hit by incoming vehicles as they cross to the trucks.

“One instance was almost a catastrophic event,” said the fire commissioners. “One individual fell in the parking lot and was almost run over by an exiting fire truck.”

Other safety issues have arisen. Two of the district’s fire companies are operating out of what was originally the storage and maintenance structure built on the rear of the property. Trucks responding to one of the district’s 1,298 calls in 2016 also had to maneuver through the traffic. Fire commissioner chiefs compared the situation to playing the video game Frogger.

The proposed Jefferson Avenue facility, if approved by voters, would be more than three times the size of the existing 7,407-square-foot building. The additional space would include spaces to serve as accommodations for firefighters and community members during storms or major emergencies, in addition to a meeting room for district and public use. It would be built in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the current firehouse is not.

St. James fire commissioners will be moving forward with selling the historic firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

If voters approve the project, construction of the new Jefferson Avenue facility would start around six months after the vote and would be completed within one year. Volunteer response to emergencies would not be interrupted by the construction, according to the district.

Regardless of voters’ decision, St. James fire commissioners said they will move forward with selling off the Route 25A/Lake Avenue building, purchased by the district for $500,000 in 2013. Due to the facility’s age, it’s not suited for the district’s needs.

The estimated cost of the proposed plan to consolidate to one Jefferson Avenue facility would be an increase of approximately $118 to $198 a year for taxpayers based on their home’s assessed value.

St. James Fire District will be holding a public information session for those who wish to learn more Aug. 29 at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse at 7 p.m. Residents can also tour existing facilities Sept. 9 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sept. 14 from 7 to 9 p.m. and Sept. 17 from 1 to 3 p.m.

A plan for what Lake Avenue would look like post-revitalization. Photos from the Lake Avenue renovation capital project report, prepared by the Smithtown Planning Department

Smithtown is moving ahead with plans to beautify its downtowns, this time with St. James.

The town board voted May 9 to amend the 2017 capital projects plan and budget to add a $2 million reconstruction to enhance the St. James business

The project, adopted in a 3-2 vote, will renovate approximately 4,300 feet of Lake Avenue, from Moriches Road to Woodlawn Avenue, by restoring its sidewalks and putting in new street trees, street lighting, curbs, concrete gutters and crosswalks, driveway aprons, asphalt, driveway aprons, benches and other decorative amenities.

The project, spearheaded by Councilman Tom McCarthy (R) in collaboration with the traffic, engineering, highway and planning departments, aims to make Lake Avenue the focal point of the St. James community, improve business activity in the downtown area, and encourage private investment in adjacent properties.

“It’s about time we step up to the plate, swing the bat, and make St. James Village and all our other villages the light of Suffolk County,” McCarthy said to the board during the work session Tuesday morning. “We have the best budget of all towns in the county and some of the most affluent people in the county … and I think we have to lead the way for the community to fix our infrastructure that’s aged and decrepit and if we don’t, then shame on us.”

According to Town Planning Director David Flynn, Lake Avenue was last reconstructed with a crown and base and street trees, concrete curbs, sidewalks and gutters in the 1930s. The work done at the time served the hamlet well for many years but new surfacing is desperately needed today, Flynn explained to the board.

“The sidewalks in St. James today would be rated the lowest in terms of walkability, smoothness, and crookedness, and the trees have been cropped severely by utilities to the point where they are more like weeds,” Flynn said. “The vacancy rate in the business district has increased the past few years and our approach is to bring downtown back to what it was, add amenities, put some trees back, rebuild what’s there … restore the pavement and make the pedestrian environment better, safe and more attractive.”

To further improve the aesthetic of the streetscape, according to the project proposal, the species and locations of street trees will be selected based on overhead wires, underground utilities and other urban conditions.

When asked by Councilwoman Lynne Nowick (R) why St. James should be the first of the hamlets to be worked on, as opposed to Kings Park and Smithtown, Flynn said it is the only one not sitting on a state highway, so state approval wouldn’t be necessary. The state of repair is also better in other hamlets, he added.

Nowick said during the work session she was in agreement with the project.

“We need to take care of our downtowns, whether it’s Smithtown or Kings Park or St. James,” she said. “There is no foot traffic in St. James … it’s a little sad.”

According to Superintendent of Highways Robert Murphy (R), renovations to Lake Avenue will begin as soon as possible, in coordination with schools and local businesses.

The cost estimate total of $1,994,836.60 — for asphalt, concrete, trees, amenities, surveying, drainage and lighting — will come out of the town’s general fund balance and will not be bonded.

“It’s a great project and we’re moving in the right direction,” McCarthy said.

During the vote, Supervisor Patrick Vecchio (R), McCarthy and Nowick said yes. Councilman Ed Wehrheim (R) and Councilwoman Lisa Inzerillo (R), saying they support the project but request it be tabled for a couple weeks, voted no. The two opposed said they wanted more time to review the plan in its entirety.