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Even after program ends questions continue about speed camera near closed school

Drivers were unprepared for speed camera tickets at

Drivers were unprepared for speed camera tickets at the Willis Avenue School in Mineola; it now houses a day care center, seen here on Jan. 16, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Judy Cartwright

Though Nassau County's speed cameras have been shut off, the questions haven't stopped about one location: Willis Avenue School in Mineola, which was closed in 2012 in a district consolidation.

As you might guess, drivers who received tickets are furious and want them dismissed.

It's not that easy.

Although the building no longer houses a school, it isn't empty. A day care center occupies some classrooms. School speed zones are permitted near day care centers under federal and state traffic control laws.

But because the school was, well, no longer a school, drivers tell us they had no reason to expect the 20 mph school speed zone to be enforced. Even those who were aware of the day care center thought it was morning only and were stunned to get tickets for driving 31 mph in late afternoon.

Jill Rooney, executive director of the nonprofit that operates the Harbor Child Care center, said she had not requested a camera but had asked for a safety officer to assist with traffic when buses arrive. Nor did the school district ask for a camera, according to District Superintendent Michael Nagler.

In August, Nagler received a questionnaire from the county's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency asking him to log on to a website and list school buildings and hours of operation. Nagler did not list two schools, one of them Willis Avenue, "because they're not used as public education buildings."

The county stands by use of the camera.

The site was chosen "due to risk to school pedestrian traffic," said John Marks, executive director of the agency.

"A traffic study indicated a great number of motorists exceeding the speed limit near this child care [center], which is located in a designated school zone," he said in an emailed statement. The county "did reach out to the Mayor of Mineola via written correspondence and received his response after the [mobile camera] vehicle was deployed," Marks said in the statement.

The mobile unit was used on the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, he said, then removed "due to a parking meter issue and receipt of Mayor's correspondence inquiring about logistics and concerns regarding deployment."

The speed camera program ended in December after more than 400,000 tickets were issued in just more than three months. The county legislature repealed the program when residents' anger refused to abate.

The camera at the Willis Avenue School illustrates how the program veered from a path that could have been a success, according to a traffic safety researcher.

"I think a lot of it comes down to communication," said Richard Retting, who worked for New York City's Department of Transportation and now is director of safety/research at Sam Schwartz Engineering in Washington, D.C.

"There has to be a combination of compliance with state law but done in a way that was fair and honest. From a public perspective it wasn't," he said when we spoke. "When you lose that, a program like this can't be sustained."

The camera issued 230 violations in those two days. We didn't hear from every ticket recipient, but those who bothered to call or write appeared ready for a fight.

FOLLOW-UP

Time for a return trip to Northport, where Tamar Sherman asked the village more than a decade ago to make downtown pedestrian crossings easy to use for people with disabilities.

Sherman's efforts in pursuit of sidewalk ramps at Main Street near the harbor were featured on this page in 2009 and again in 2011. When we followed up in 2013, the village was revising plans and awaiting state approval.

The wait continues.

Adapting the infrastructure of a historic village to meet a variety of federal requirements -- narrow sidewalks and storm drain locations are just the beginning -- proved to be challenging.

The state Department of Transportation "is waiting for revisions to the Village of Northport's project bid documents which are needed to comply" with federal funding requirements, agency spokeswoman Eileen Peters said in an email early this month. Department engineers met with local officials in May and suggested revisions to "meet federal requirements, ADA compliance rules, and bid regulations," she said.

Deputy Mayor Henry Tobin keeps Sherman abreast of developments and invited her to inspect a potential design at Main Street and Woodbine Avenue last summer. It wound up being withdrawn.

Sherman said she recently spoke with a woman who also relies on a wheelchair. "She said, 'I keep wondering about those curbs in Northport, whether anything is going to get done.' I said they've been trying but just can't seem to come up with a plan," Sherman said.

Sherman now has a motorized wheelchair with enough power to maneuver from the street up onto the sidewalk. But even it can't negotiate the reverse trip.

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