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Judge rules district needs permit to build fence at East Williston elementary school

Work was halted on a fence at North

Work was halted on a fence at North Side Elementary School in East Williston after nearly two dozen residents sued the school district in August over whether a building permit is needed. Credit: Danielle Silverman

A state judge has ruled that the East Williston School District cannot construct a fence at North Side Elementary School without a building permit from the Village of East Williston.

The court ruling came six weeks after 19 residents sued the school district in late August. Construction of a 6-foot-tall black cast aluminum fence, which was planned to increase school safety, began earlier that month.

At the heart of the dispute was whether the State Education Department had exclusive jurisdiction over school construction matters, absolving the district of any obligation to seek a permit from the local municipality.

The school district said it didn’t need to apply for a village permit because the permit it had received from the state in April was enough.

"There has never been a school district in the state of New York that has had to file two building permits," John Sheahan, a Farmingdale-based attorney representing the school district, said in a previous interview.

The residents disagreed, citing a May letter in which a state Education Department official wrote that the department’s approval is “separate and distinct from any local zoning approval which may still be required.”

The plaintiffs further contended the district’s failure to comply with village code deprived them of their “rightful participation” in village governance.

To obtain a permit for the fence, which is 2 feet taller than village code allows for, the district would have been required to seek a variance from the village’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

The district’s actions, “if allowed to go unchecked, would unlawfully afford the [school district] the opportunity to avoid accountability to the Village and its taxpayers, resulting in significant avoidable costs,” the plaintiffs’ Mineola-based attorney, Matthew Cuomo, wrote in a complaint.

Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Sharon Gianelli sided with the residents, writing in an Oct. 4 court order that the district is “not immune from local zoning considerations even where [State Education Department] has issued a permit.”

School officials and Sheahan did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.

North Side takes up an entire block and is bordered by Wheatley and East Williston avenues, which have heavy vehicle traffic, and Downing Street and Andrews Road, which are residential streets.

The fence, which was to be erected on three sides of the school, was first discussed in 2017 as a security measure to keep unauthorized adults off school grounds and prevent students from running into the street to chase a ball.

“As a board, we haven’t taken a position [on whether the fence should be built],” Village Mayor Bonnie Parente said last week at a board meeting. “Our position is that they should be getting a permit at this point.”

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