An aerial view of Riverhead Charter School, center, as seen on Friday.

An aerial view of Riverhead Charter School, center, as seen on Friday. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The Riverhead Charter School plans to build a larger high school on farmland that would require a special permit from the town and neighbors are rallying against the proposal, saying the school will change the area’s rural charm.

School officials want to build next to the existing high school, a schoolhouse on Sound Avenue that opened after $2.9 million in renovations in 2022. Superintendent Raymond Ankrum said the campus would include sports fields, which the school currently lacks. 

Ankrum said the schoolhouse was a “stopgap solution” that can’t accommodate growing enrollment. There are more than 900 students enrolled from K-12, split between the high school and the main charter school campus on Middle Country Road in Calverton. 

“With a new high school, we can organically grow, retain our students and offer them the full spectrum of their educational journey,” Ankrum said in a statement.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Riverhead Charter School is in contract to buy 71 acres of farmland to build a bigger high school.
  • The property requires special town approval for schools and other non-farming uses.
  • Residents have launched an effort to block the proposal, which they say will negatively impact rural vistas, traffic and quality of life.

The project can only be built with a special permit from the town since the property is in an agricultural protection zoning district meant to limit non-agriculture development. 

The school is in contract to buy 71 acres from Potato Acres LLC and tapped $4.5 million in reserves to buy the land in November 2023. Neither the purchase nor design plans have been finalized.

Signs opposing Riverhead Charter School's plan to build a new high school...

Signs opposing Riverhead Charter School's plan to build a new high school on farmland are displayed outside a home on Foxtrail Court on Friday. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The school borders Aquebogue, where some neighbors say that granting one special permit will pave the way for future development on farmland. They said the school will negatively impact traffic, noise and property values.

Four properties are included in the sale. The three closest to Sound Avenue can be developed, which is where the school plans to build. Suffolk County bought the development rights to the fourth property, a 60-acre plot, for use solely for farming.

“It breaks my heart to even consider that something like this would go there,” said Maureen McKay, whose Foxtrail Court home backs up to the farmland. “It’s going to change the character forever.” 

McKay, 51, is leading the effort against the proposal, handing out lawn signs and collecting 200 signatures for a petition as of Friday. Residents are planning to bring up the issue at a town board meeting on Wednesday.

She and others who bought homes in the area since 1999 paid into the Community Preservation Fund, a 2% real estate transfer tax that helps protect open space and improve water quality on the East End.

“They’re going against everything we bought into,” McKay said. 

Ankrum said community concerns are “valid” but that the school plans to build on the nonprotected acreage. The school may lease the protected land to a farmer and encourage farm-to-table education, he said.

Students say space is a long-standing issue.

Senior Jah’mere Jackson, 17, recalled classes held in gyms and music rooms while the school still operated before the existing building was renovated.

“Finally we have space. We have our own environment,” he said.

His sister, Skylah Jackson, 15, said, “If we expand, more students can come and there will be more successful kids.”

In 2022, the state Board of Regents allowed the school to expand grades 11 and 12 and increase enrollment from 850 to 1,244 students over five years, according to JP O’Hare, a spokesman for the state Education Department.

Riverhead is one of seven charter schools on Long Island and one of three that are K-12, O'Hare said.

Charter schools get funding from school districts depending on how many students attend from each. In Riverhead, Ankrum said students come from 17 districts.

A majority of those students, or 580, come from within Riverhead. The Riverhead Central School District spent $11.6 million on charter school tuition this year, according to a school business official.

Greg Wallace, president of the Riverhead school district's teacher’s union, said the union opposes the expansion plan and that the charter school “depletes the resources” from the district.

Schools are one of several uses allowed in agricultural protection areas by special permit in Riverhead.

Supervisor Tim Hubbard said he’s not sure he supports the location but that the town must consider both sides.

“No minds are made up one way or the other right now,” he said.

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