Pelham Examiner

Pelham Examiner

Pelham Examiner

Village of Pelham denied easement by school board for Julianne’s Playground; use of eminent domain ‘an option’

Board members don’t say when they came to unanimous decision: possible breach of Open Meetings Law
Trustee Will Treves discusses the board’s “unanimous” decision to not grant the easement for the sewer project. (Source: Pelham Union Free School District video feed)

The Village of Pelham will not get an easement from the school district to build underground stormwater reservoirs and install pumps at Julianne’s Playground.

School Board President Dr. Michael Owen-Michaane opened the Feb. 12 trustees meeting with the announcement that “we have decided an easement is not the right solution to this problem.”

“We are committed to doing the right thing for Julianne’s Playground and our neighbors who are affected by flooding and our community,” said Owen-Michaane. “At this point, the Village of Pelham has not agreed to consider other solutions. We are concerned and have heard from neighbors that the Village of Pelham may pursue condemnation of Julianne’s Playground, which we don’t want to see.”

In an interview Friday, Village of Pelham Mayor Chance Mullen said the use of eminent domain powers by the village to take ownership of part of the park and then restore it is more than just neighborhood scuttlebutt. Such a “partial taking” remains “an option” for the village, he said.

“This alternative was also included in my presentation to the school board,” said Mullen.

During that Jan. 22 meeting, Mullen also told the trustees that the reservoirs and pumps are needed for a $39 million overhaul of the municipality’s storm-sewer system to reduce flooding in north Pelham and the Highbrook Avenue area that has become worse as the number and intensity of storms have increased.

Citing several board meetings and facilities committee meetings where the easement request was reviewed, Owen-Michaane said, “I want people to know that we considered this in a careful process that’s been transparent. I’ve done everything I can to make sure we’re by the book in terms of Open Meetings Law—that the discussions have happened in a careful way.”

What followed his statement was a rare form of political theater for the school board. Each of the six other members gave reasons why they were opposed to granting the easement.

“We, the board of education, agree the flooding in north Pelham is a problem which is inarguably worth solving,” said Trustee Will Treves. “We, the board, are unanimous—and I’m looking around the board to my colleagues—in not wanting to go down the path of an easement. Because this is a massive massive engineering project that will have a presence for generations. The municipality driving the project is the Village of Pelham, and, therefore, the Village of Pelham should assume all the risks, and the project should be completed on property owned by the village.”

(Quotes from the other five board members made during their statements at the beginning of the meeting are at the end of this story.)

Map shows where in Julianne’s Playground the stormwater reservoirs would be constructed under the existing tennis courts and blacktop as well as the location of the aboveground pump station. The playground equipment is in the area roughly to left of the black dashed line. (Source: Preliminary Village-wide Drainage Infrastructure Summary Report)

Neither Owen-Michaane nor Treves said when the board made its unanimous decision to reject the easement request. If it was done in private, as seems apparent, the board violated the New York State Open Meetings Law. Holding the public discussions that Owen-Michaane cited but then taking a vote—whether formal or informal—behind closed doors does not meet the standards of the law.

Owen-Michaane, who is the designated spokesperson for the board, has not responded to two emails sent Friday asking how and when the unanimous decision was made by the board, all of whose members were ready to speak about it at the very beginning of the meeting.

On Friday, Mullen was unaware of the rejection made via multiple board member statements. “To my knowledge, the school board has not yet taken any votes on this project, and I remain optimistic that we’ll find a collaborative path forward,” he said in an email.

That looks unlikely at this point. The mayor and the school board members disagree even on whether any other approaches have been considered. Mullen said the “board has not yet made a counter-offer” after the village proposed a $600,000 payment for the easement to install the underground reservoirs under the tennis court and blacktop at Julianne’s Playground, along with above-ground diesel pumps.

But during his statement, Treves outlined a “conceptual alternative” approach the school district put forward and the village rejected because it would require a vote by the school district’s residents, as all real estate transactions do. The land would be transferred to the village and the school district would receive “something in return” so the district is no worse off, he said. The project could also not impede on the build-ability of the park by the district or negatively impact families in vicinity.

“This alternative line of discussion was rejected by the Village of Pelham because for the district to transfer land to the village (the transaction) would be subject to voter approval—the district’s voter approval,” he said. “And the village does not want it to go to a vote.”

“Now, it’s not for me to say why the village would wish to sidestep a vote,” Treves said. “But it is for me to say that the board of education having been framed as villains in this is completely unjustified.”

He said holding a public vote made sense because of the varied opinions in the district about the project and echoed Owen-Michaane’s concern about the village invoking eminent domain.

While recently Mullen has said the reservoirs and pumps are required to move forward with the massive sewer project, during Zoom presentations in October he told residents the engineers would need to replan the project, with the possibile need to purchase houses to access the pipes, if the district said no to the easement.

Statements by Other Trustees

Trustee Jackie De Angelis: “The project devalues the property, and we have to take that into consideration.”

Trustee Natalie Marrero: “We serve all the kids in this town, not just the kids in north Pelham.”

Trustee Annemarie Garcia: “We feel we have brought alternatives that would address the very issue and keep all interests that the district has to keep the playground sacred and fix the flooding.”

Board Vice President Ian Rowe: “The issue of flooding is something we’re all concerned with. We’re victims of it as well with our Colonial School and just our neighbors. So it’s something we want to see solved. And for all the reasons that my colleagues have shared, the easement is not the right answer… We thought we were working in concert but we are now hearing the village may proceed unilaterally by starting to dig holes in Julianne’s Playground to do testing, whether we like it or not.”  (Rowe spoke by videoconference from Washington, D.C.)

Trustee Sid Burke: “I believe there is a solution to this problem that would enable the flooding project to move forward, protect Julianne’s and protect and benefit the district. And I hope the village will keep the lines of communication open to facilitate a result like that.”


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    Scott WolfgangFeb 18, 2024 at 12:48 pm

    I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t see why there would need to be any type of board vote. Anyone could ask the school for an easement or to buy property — heck I could go in and ask for all of Siwanoy playground for free or $1. I don’t see why this type of request would merit any type of response, especially a vote, from the BoE. What is much more concerning to me is both sides have made it clear in public meetings that there has been conversations between the District and VoP to sell or trade Julianne’s and none of this is public record. A good use of the Examiner’s resources would be to make a FOIA request to the district and VoP for all correspondence between the two municipalities on this issue.