STONINGTON — The school district is considering its options for the most cost-effective way of moving forward with its school bus depot project, after cost estimates came in substantially higher than expected.

The estimate, $367,750, would cover the construction of a parking lot for the district’s buses and the bus drivers’ cars, and for installing utilities for a modular building on the site. The amount would also cover groundwater measures, including rain gardens and a retention pond, which would be needed because part of the site contains wetlands.

The district pays $5,000 per month, or $60,000 per year, to park its buses at 50 Extrusion Drive, a 3.79-acre site with a 13,000-square-foot, seven-bay industrial garage. Bus drivers employed by the district also park their cars there during working hours. The site is co-owned by Ralph Arganese, of Atlanta,  Hudson United Bank of Mahwah, N.J., and the Marvin F. Poer and Company of Boston.

In 2015, Rob Valenti, owner of Valenti Auto Mall in Mystic, bought a 5.53-acre lot at 40 Extrusion Drive, which is adjacent to the northwest side of the current bus depot and bordered to the southeast by Constitution Drive. Valenti offered to lease the lot to the district for $1 per year as a location for a new bus depot.

In exchange for the land, Valenti made an agreement with the town for use of a town-owned 2.6-acre triangular site adjacent to the dealership, which Valenti uses for his employees’ parking and for offloading trucks.

The site, which has no street number, is on the south side of Jerry Browne Road, across from Deer Ridge Road, and borders on I-95 to the south and Bob Valenti Automall, at 72 Jerry Browne Road, to the west. In 2003, the town received permission from the State of Connecticut, under Special Act 03-19, to use the parcel for transportation purposes only. Under the covenant, the town cannot lease or make money from the parcel.

In 2015, the district was looking for a new bus depot location and the site on Jerry Browne Road was under discussion since the town already owned it. Because Valenti wanted to continue to use the parcel, he bought the land on Extrusion Drive for the school district's use. Valenti confirmed Tuesday that he would also provide a modular building for the site.

Fast forward to April 2018, when the Planning and Zoning Commission approved the school district’s site plan application to build a bus depot parking lot at 40 Extrusion Drive, including a gravel parking area for 26 buses, 5 vans and 33 employee spaces, and a 13-foot by 42-foot office trailer, which will be connected to public utilities.

Following approval, the Board of Education included $100,000 in its 2018-19 Capital Improvement Plan to cover the cost of the parking lot.

When the estimate came in much higher, the Board of Education asked for $290,000 in its 2019-20 Capital Improvement Plan to cover the costs of the project.

In an interview, school Superintendent Van Riley said the district wanted to construct a simple, low-cost open-air gravel bus depot, but groundwater management requirements had driven up the costs substantially.

“We wanted a fence and a gravel lot," he said. "The Planning and Zoning Commission requires about $120,000 just for the water control and the landscaping. It’s gone from $50,000 — and we thought it might be $100,000 last year — and now it’s up to $360,000.”

The site also requires paving and curbs constructed in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.

When Riley presented the capital request to the Board of Finance on March 12, he received some pushback.

“It was suggested by the Board of Finance that we take this issue back to Planning and Zoning or to the Zoning Board of Appeals,” he said. “That’s just a lot of money for the town to spend for a gravel parking lot. I understand that we want to be environmentally appropriate, but that just got way more expensive than anybody thought it would be.”

Riley said one positive aspect of the new site is the lack of a diesel fuel tank, which would require an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead, the buses fuel at the town’s fueling site during certain hours, he said.

“We were able to remove the requirement from the site so there is no fueling,” he said. “It saves the town from putting in another fuel tank that’s going to have to be removed someday.”

As for the old diesel tank at 50 Extrusion Drive, Riley said it was up to the property owners to remove it. He also said the building on the site was contaminated with black mold and had been condemned.

Riley also clarified that the exchange between the district and Valenti was not a “land swap.”

“The state turned that piece of land over to the Town of Stonington to use as long as they didn’t sell it or lease it or make any money off of it,” Riley said. The district will pay Valenti $1 a year to lease 40 Extrusion Drive but the town does not receive money from Valenti, he said. 

In terms of short- and long-term planning for the district, Riley said he needed to talk with the Board of Education about next steps for the project.

“We need to move forward with this somehow, it’s important for 20-year planning. It just seems like a lot of money for a bus yard to us,” he said.“If we don’t do it, we end up paying $60,000 a year, forever.”

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