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September 29th, 2003

Beach Village Hall

by John Herrick

Westhampton Beach Village HallCivil war broke out in the quaint and tiny village of Westhampton Beach over plans for a new village hall. Proponents called it a building for the future. Opponents called it an 18,000 square foot municipal McMansion.

What’s 18,000 square feet among friends in the Hamptons?

It’s a little bigger than the major McMansion Cantor Fitzgerald honcho Howard Lutnick picked up in Bridgehampton, 15,000 square feet with 37 acres to spare for $15 million. It’s a little smaller than the Easthampton YMCA Rec Center with a full size pool, showers, locker rooms, fitness area, and tech room in 20,000 square feet. But it’s a little bigger than the recent addition to the Westhampton Beach Middle School just down Mill Road, a 15,950 square foot two story brick building. For most village board functions ten people makes a good crowd. Closer to 100 crammed into the second floor meeting room above the firehouse to talk about the proposed village hall.

Many village residents got a bad case of sticker shock when plans for the new hall appeared in August. The proposal called for a $2.95 million dollar bond issue to pay for a new 18,000 square foot village hall on the site of the old Six Corners School. That would come on top of the $2.55 million collected by selling the old village hall to the new unified fire department. And there was more to come.

Critics did more than complain. They went out and collected more than 300 signatures on a petition to force the village to hold a referendum on the bond issue. Suddenly what looked like a done deal for Mayor Robert Strebel and the Village Board turned into a take it or leave it fight to the finish.

Village resident Jean Schweibish, a leader in the petition drive, cataloged many of the complaints at the crowded meeting.

“Why is this meeting being held the same evening as a major presentation of the school budget?” Ms. Schweibish asked. The school budget runs to more than $30 million.

“People are not interested in having something crammed down their throats.” She said. “At least now they will have a chance to vote.”

“This thing is growing like Pinocchio’s nose.” She said when told the building might include space for senior citizens.

Another resident pointed out that something still seemed to be missing from the total. Well before unveiling the plans the village bought the old Six Corners property for $1.4 million. That needs to be added to the $2.55 million the village got for selling the old village hall, firehouse and police department and the $2.95 million bond issue to cover the rest of the cost of the new village hall. That brings the total to 6.9 million.

“Why didn’t you simply renovate the old school house?” A Dune Road resident asked.

“You could stand in the basement of the old school house and look at the sky.” Mayor Strebel replied.

That made the old school house more transparent than some of the other goings on in the village. The school district originally tried to give the old school to the village. The village didn’t want it. Eventually it was sold for a buck and good luck to anyone who wants to trace all the steps from that buck to the $1.4 million the village eventually paid to get a vacant lot there.

Another resident said she, like many others who voted for the referendum to sell the old village hall and build a new one, thought it would be an even trade, with no additional cost.

“We couldn’t tell what the new building would cost until we did a needs assessment.” Mayor Strebel explained.

Selling yourself into a corner with no idea what it will cost to get out might be called governing behind closed doors with the lights off, in the dark.

“We have no plan B,” Mayor Strebel said. So it’s back to the drawing board if the referendum fails.

“This meeting should have been held a long time ago.” Dean Speir told the mayor.

In support of the building, Police Chief Ray Dean said the old 1500 square foot Police station was built 40 years ago for five cops. The architect, Michael Tortorice of Beatty, Harvey and Associates figured more like 4400 square feet for police in the new building. That’s a 300 per cent increase.

One lawyer said that is a lot of cop shop for a village of 2.9 square miles with less than 2000 residents according to the 2000 census.

But an experienced architect called the whole building a banal mess, too big, with too many corridors wasting too much space.

“There are also major problems with the design,” the architect pointed out.

“Police who have to respond in emergencies really can’t safely share a parking lot.” The architect also noted the detention areas seem to have private toilets, which is totally unsafe. And as for Evacuation centers, schools are evacuation areas. No one has back up evacuation centers.

Perhaps Fire Chief George Vickers deserved more sympathy than anyone else in the crowded room. After all, he had to spend the evening listening to people describing the fire house and the police department as leaky, outmoded buildings. These were the people who just sold his department those buildings for $2.55 million. Taxpayers will have to spend money to fix them up too, no doubt.

by John Herrick

Filed Under: Articles | Politics | the Hamptons

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