Planners spar over school renovation

Published 10:59 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Suffolk Planning Commission on Tuesday voted to approve a capital improvements plan that would extend city water to Holland and renovate the old Robertson Elementary School to become a community center.

The plan, which includes $705 million worth of projects planned for the next 10 years, now will go to City Council for approval.

The capital improvements plan is updated annually and reflects the projects the city expects to need during the next decade and how it expects to pay for them. The first year of the plan is incorporated into the budget proposal.

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During discussions on Tuesday, tensions rose over a relatively small project in the plan — the $3 million renovation of the former elementary school in Whaleyville.

“Are there other projects in the existing CIP we could use this $3 million for?” Commissioner Jim Vacalis asked. He said he was concerned about the plan because Whaleyville already has a community center.

He suggested the money might be put to better use building a community center in a more densely populated area, building a new library downtown or speeding up the construction of other projects like a new boat ramp in North Suffolk.

Commissioner Arthur Singleton bristled at the idea that a project in the northern area of the city could replace one in Whaleyville.

“I can’t see depriving the people in Whaleyville and Holland any longer,” he said. “We’re like stepchildren over there for the past 35 years. To take money out of Whaleyville to build a boat ramp doesn’t make any kind of sense to me.”

Vacalis said the boat ramp was only one suggestion among numerous other projects. Singleton said the current Whaleyville Community Center does not compare to the larger facilities that could be provided in a renovation of the school.

Singleton also questioned why less money was allocated to building a school in the southern part of the city than in the northern part.

Budget and Strategic Planning Director Anne Seward said construction costs further into the future are more difficult to predict and the process of acquiring land is expected to be costlier in the more densely populated northern section.

Singleton also grilled Public Utilities Director Al Moor about the plan to extend city water to Holland, which is being done because of a health department order to get the fluoride levels in that village’s water supply under acceptable limits.

“It’s prudent that we run treated transmission out there,” Moor said.

He added the service could be up and running as early as summer of 2014.

“I’m going to hold you to it, if I’m still on planning and you’re still in that job,” Singleton said.

The first year of the plan features about $52.7 million in projects. In addition to the Holland water extension and the school renovation, they include improvements to the Planters Club; renovations at Sleepy Hole Park; security improvements at the airport, courthouse and downtown police precinct; a new southern elementary school; and more.

The full 10-year document includes more than $705 million worth of projects. That’s about a 2.6-percent decrease from last year and doesn’t include utility projects, which are in a separate fund.