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Lake Avenue

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
district.

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.