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Property

The Briarcliff building at 18 Tower Hill Road in Shoreham, was formerly the Briarcliff Elementary School until it closed in 2014. File photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Some residents see it as a magical place full of rich history and memories that deserves preservation, others consider it a tax burden that should be sold and disposed of. The future of Briarcliff Elementary School, a shuttered, early-20th century building on Tower Hill Road in Shoreham, is currently up in the air as the school district looks to community members to weigh in on potential options.

A dozen voices were heard Jan. 9 during a public forum held by Shoreham-Wading River’s board of education to decide the fate of the beloved historic school, which has sat vacant for the last three years. The nearly 27,000-square-foot manor was built in 1907, expanded on through 2007 and closed permanently in 2014 as part of the district’s restructuring plan.

David Madigan, a Tesla Science Center board member and a former Briarcliff student, pleads his case to the board as to why it should preserve the school building. Photo by Kevin Redding

Administrators made it clear during the meeting that the board has no plans for the property at this time and, due to declining enrollment throughout the district, does not foresee it will be used for instructional use anytime soon — be it a pre-K or BOCES program. Board members said it will determine the best course of action for the building based on input from the community in the coming months.

“The board will not be making any decisions tonight on the future of the Briarcliff elementary school building, we’re only listening to residential statements,” said board president Robert Rose. “We recognize the importance of input from the entire community.”

This year, the annual operating costs for the property are estimated to total $95,000, which are expensed through the district’s general fund and includes building and equipment maintenance; insurance; and utilities, according to Glen Arcuri, assistant superintendent for finances and operations.

A presentation of the pricey upkeep didn’t dissuade several residents from speaking passionately about the school’s place in the history of Shoreham, pleading with the board to neither sell nor redevelop it for condominiums, as one speaker suggested.

“It was such a wonderful place — the children loved the building,” said Bob Korchma, who taught at Briarcliff for a number of years. “To lose such a great part of our community for housing and any other endeavors would be crazy. It has such history and working there was one of the best parts of my life.”

Debbie Lutjen, a physical education teacher at the school for 10 years, echoed the sentiments, calling the building “special,” and encouraged the board to move the two-floor North Shore Public Library that is currently attached to the high school to Briarcliff.

“If we sell, it’s a one-time influx of cash and we’re never going to get it back again. I think we should work together to keep it as an asset for Shoreham-Wading River.”

—Colette Grosso

“The majority of my teaching career in the district was at the high school, and when they put the public library there, I believe it created several security problems where the general public was on school grounds during the school day,” Lutjen said, suggesting that the freed up space at the high school could be used for classrooms, a larger cafeteria, a fitness center and testing rooms.

Residents also pushed the idea to designate the building a historic landmark and pursue grants, potentially from U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), to restore it. David Kuck, whose son went to Briarcliff, said on top of making it a historic site, the district should turn it into a STEM center for students across Suffolk County, as it stands in the shadow of inventor Nikola Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe Tower.

David Madigan, a Tesla Science Center board member and a former Briarcliff student, outlined the building’s history for the board — three generations of the prominent Upham family, including a veteran of the Civil War, built and owned the school in three different phases — and urged that covenants be filed on the property that says the building could never be taken down.

“The exterior must be kept in its historic state,” Madigan said. “It’s a very valuable and historical asset for our village. And it’s the most important thing to preserve as a resident.”

Joan Jacobs, a Shoreham resident for 40 years and former teacher, explained to the board how the building was the model for the mansion in the “Madeline” children’s books by Ludwig Bemelmans, who worked at a tavern on Woodville Road.

Joan Jacobs gets emotional talking about her connection and history with Shoreham’s Briarcliff Elementary School. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s so rich and having taught there for 14 years, having a daughter go through there, there’s an awful lot there,” an emotional Jacobs said. “It’s a shame to throw away our history.”

Both Bob Sweet and Barbara Cohen, members of Shoreham Village, advocated that the school be redeveloped as a residence for seniors in the area.

“I care about this building and sorely miss when the school buses coming up the road to drop the grade schoolers off,” Sweet said. “I admonish you don’t sell the property and explore the notion of turning this into condos for retired village members.”

But Colette Grosso, a special education aide at Miller Avenue School, said she hopes the community works toward a solution where the building remains an asset within the district for educational purposes as opposed to housing.

“All-day daycare and aftercare services could be done there, and there are other organizations besides BOCES that would love to use the facility to serve special education, which is an underserved population,” Grosso said. “If we sell, it’s a one-time influx of cash and we’re never going to get it back again. I think we should work together to keep it as an asset for Shoreham-Wading River.”

Further discussions with community members on Briarcliff will occur at the next board of education meeting Feb. 13 in the high school auditorium at 7 p.m.

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Smithtown school district's administrative New York Avenue building. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

By Kevin Redding

The Smithtown school board is not yet sold on a proposal by the town to buy its administration building on New York Avenue and surrounding property to turn them into municipality offices and a central park.

“The Board of Education has made no decision as to what direction it wishes to pursue with respect to the New York Avenue property,” said the Smithtown school board in a statement Sept. 19.

This comes months after the Smithtown Town Board issued an appraisal of the administration building to the school board for its review in order to kick-start a negotiation process as quickly as possible.

Councilman Tom McCarthy (R), who proposed the town purchase the property to help boost its downtown revitalization efforts, said during a Sept. 5 town board meeting the school’s decision to not sell the property or meet with council members to discuss the topic at this time meant the town could not move forward with anything.

He also suggested the board not proceed with its original plans to appraise six buildings — existing satellite-buildings utilized as office space by town departments — which would be vacated if services could be consolidated into one centralized location on the New York Avenue property.

Nesconset resident William Holst disagreed.

“I would strongly recommend looking at getting those appraisals done, looking at those buildings in terms of being consolidated, [and] reducing the number of buildings in the downtown area so you actually can generate some real revitalization in this area,” Holst said during the meeting.

McCarthy responded by calling the $20,000 for appraisals a waste of taxpayer money at this time.

“To spend money when they really aren’t interested at this time [to sell us the building] wouldn’t be prudent,” McCarthy said.

The councilman said that he has reached out to members of the school board in an attempt to try to schedule a future meeting.

“If we can get them to the bargaining table, I’m sure this board would be more than happy to do the appraisals on our outlying buildings,” McCarthy said.

In an interview Sept. 18, McCarthy said, “It’s in limbo right now but I would get moving on it tomorrow if they got back to us, which I hope they do. I think they’re looking at it from a monetary standpoint for themselves and doing their due diligence. They’re a good board.”

Smithtown resident Bob Hughes, a member of the civics New York Avenue Group and Smithtown United, said he has unofficially acted as an intermediary between the two boards since last year to help them find common ground on the matter.

Hughes believes school board members are holding out on a decision until after town elections are over “so they don’t have to deal with two possible town boards.”

“Once we get past November, there probably will be more interaction between the school and town,” Hughes said, holding out hope the project will move forward soon. “It’s about what the community wants. The New York Avenue property could be a focal point of the downtown revitalization and improve efficiency.”

By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Clients often ask how they can ensure the home in which they live or their vacation home can be protected against the cost of long-term care.  These assets are often worth much more to our clients than the cash value; they represent hard work to pay off the mortgage and are wrapped in memories.

Prior to the sophistication of trust law, many individuals would pass a residence to their beneficiaries by executing a deed with a life estate. For the owner, this would mean retaining the right to live in the home until death, but upon their demise, the property would be fully owned by the beneficiaries.

Because they retained a lifetime interest in the property, they would still be able to claim any exemptions with respect to the property. Moreover, when the owner died, the beneficiaries would get a “step-up” in basis, which eliminates or lessens capital gains tax due if they did sell the property.

The negative aspect to this kind of transfer is loss of control. Once the deed is transferred to the beneficiaries, they have the ownership interest. If the original owner wanted to sell the property or change who receives it upon their death, they would have to get the permission of those to whom they transferred the property. Another negative aspect is that if the individual is receiving Medicaid benefits and the house is sold, a share of the proceeds, the life estate interest, would be paid out to the individual and could put their Medicaid benefits in jeopardy.

A better option for protecting a residence is by executing an irrevocable Medicaid Qualifying Trust, which can transfer real property at death. Like the deed with a life estate, this trust grants all the tax benefits and exclusive occupancy during life, i.e., STAR exemption, veteran’s exemption, capital gains exemption.

This method is superior to the deed with a life estate because if the property is sold during your lifetime, the full amount of the proceeds are protected within the trust and will pass to your beneficiaries upon your death. The trust also gives the ability to change the beneficiaries at any time, leaving some control in the hands of the original owner of the property.

A person’s residence is their most treasured and often most monetarily valuable asset. It is important to meet with an experienced attorney to ensure protection of your home or vacation home.

Nancy Burner, Esq. has practiced elder law and estate planning for 25 years. The opinions of columnists are their own. They do not speak for the paper.