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Pelham is latest district to propose home buying to meet space needs

Lohud.com, Westchester County logo Lohud.com, Westchester County 5/30/2019 Colleen Wilson
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PELHAM – For landlocked school districts in the leafy communities of southern Westchester County, where young families flock from New York City for good schools, finding more space for students and administrators can be a steep challenge.

So when a private house went on sale in the Pelham school district, right behind Colonial Elementary School, a K-5 school tucked between homes, the district quickly moved to make a bid.

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity," said Pelham Superintendent Cheryl Champ. "To our knowledge, this home has not been on the market in 60 to 70 years and it is the one property that will completely square out the Colonial School property."

a tree in front of a building © Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

This marks the second time in two years a school district in this high-density suburban county will attempt to buy a private home, a complicated process that ultimately has to go to a public vote.

a tree in front of a building: The Pelham school district is asking its residents to vote in favor of the district purchasing a residential property in the neighborhood where the Colonial School is located. This is a view of Colonial school and the home they plan to purchase in Pelham May 15, 2019. © Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News The Pelham school district is asking its residents to vote in favor of the district purchasing a residential property in the neighborhood where the Colonial School is located. This is a view of Colonial school and the home they plan to purchase in Pelham May 15, 2019.

If a special referendum is approved by voters June 18, the district would purchase the five-bedroom home on the 0.25-acre lot for about $1.1 million. The district put down a $110,000 security deposit, of which $40,000 is non-refundable. 

Champ said the district would use money from its reserves to pay for the 3,100-square- foot home, which would be updated to accommodate Pelham's central office space for district administrators.

Colonial's playground space, now simply a blacktop surface and small playground on mulch, would be extended to the private-home property so students would have some grass to play on.

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Kristen Bowes, PTA president for Colonial school, said finding ways to improve the playground has been a frequent topic of conversation.

"There’s not one single PTA meeting I’ve run in two years where we didn’t talk about what are we going to do, how are we going to fix this playground," she said. "Getting the property is a great start to figuring out how to relieve the space issue at Colonial."

The home renovations would include bringing the structure up to code with state regulations like wheel-chair access.

a man sitting on a bench: Superintendent Cheryl Champ talks about the proposition where the Pelham school district is asking its residents to vote in favor of the district purchasing a residential property in the neighborhood where the Colonial School is located. This is a view of Colonial school and the home they plan to purchase in Pelham May 15, 2019. © Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News Superintendent Cheryl Champ talks about the proposition where the Pelham school district is asking its residents to vote in favor of the district purchasing a residential property in the neighborhood where the Colonial School is located. This is a view of Colonial school and the home they plan to purchase in Pelham May 15, 2019.

"We had reached out, sent letters to all the neighbors a year ago saying, 'Hey if anyone is interested in talking to us about selling their property, the school district would be interested,'" Champ said.

District officials anticipated that by fall 2019 they would have to relocate central offices from the basement of the middle-high school to a new facility they would rent. That office space was needed for classrooms.

The $260,000 in the 2019-20 budget earmarked to rent a space for central office would instead partially pay for renovations to the home by Colonial.

In May, Pelham voters approved $57.5 million in capital improvement projects, including renovating the central office space into classrooms. 

But earlier this school year, the district became aware that the homeowner of 314 Pelhamdale Ave. had passed away, and the family was going through the estate process.

a close up of a flower garden in front of a house: The Pelham school district is asking its residents to vote in favor of the district purchasing a residential property in the neighborhood where the Colonial School is located. This is a view of Colonial school and the home they plan to purchase in Pelham May 15, 2019. © Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News The Pelham school district is asking its residents to vote in favor of the district purchasing a residential property in the neighborhood where the Colonial School is located. This is a view of Colonial school and the home they plan to purchase in Pelham May 15, 2019.

"We were getting ready to reach directly out to them because we heard it was getting ready to go on the market," Champ said. "Out of the blue, they sent me an email, and we started talking and about five, six weeks later we were able to come to terms on a contract."

In other words, "the stars aligned," Champ said. Now, it's in the hands of voters.

First, but not the last

The Tuckahoe school district orchestrated a similar deal with a homeowner in 2017.

When a property across the street from the William E. Cottle Elementary School went up for sale, Tuckahoe Superintendent Carl Albano agreed to purchase it for $660,000, if voters approved the deal.

The district also planned to use the property for central administration offices, but their plan was to raze the house and rebuild office space on the 0.164-acre property.

"It’s rare that a school purchases private property, but we really need more land to accommodate our growing enrollment," Albano said in an interview in 2017. "What’s complicated with a school district purchasing property is we need to put it out for a public vote."

And this situation became even more complicated when the March vote had to be rescheduled at the last-minute because of a surprise snowstorm. Two months later, the referendum was rescheduled with the district's budget vote, and the cost of the house increased $2,000.

It didn't pass, going down by more than 200 votes.

Biagio Bello, a realtor with Houlihan Lawrence who represented the homeowners in the Tuckahoe negotiation, said it was a good deal at the time for the sellers.

"The house needed a significant amount of updating. In (the) buyers’ market at the time, people were looking for more updated homes so it made sense the school would buy it and do whatever they needed to do to it," Bello said.

Plus, he added: "This is essentially a cash deal the school would be doing, and that is the best kind of offer a homeowner could deal with."

This was the first time Bello said he had encountered a home-purchase negotiation with a school district. But he doesn't think it will be the last.

"The lack of land around the school district, it could become a trend," he said. "Land is the most valuable asset you can have when there is no more to build."

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Pelham is latest district to propose home buying to meet space needs

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