Congestion caused by First Student school buses traveling to and from the Greens Farms Railroad Station recently prompted town officials to approve plans to make the nearby intersection of New Creek and Greens Farms roads a “three-stop” junction. The buses have been relocated from Staples High School while the bus contractor continues to search for a permanent parking lot. / File photo

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — With efforts to find permanent parking for school buses moving more slowly than expected, school officials are asking the Planning and Zoning Commission for more time to park 31 buses at several schools’ parking lots.

The new requests would allow buses to park at the Coleytown Middle and Elementary schools complex, Bedford Middle School and Long Lots Elementary School.

The P&Z will hold a public hearing on the three applications at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6. The hearing will be live-streamed via Zoom.

The applications by school officials state: “The parking of buses is an accessory use to the operation of a school. Without buses there would be no students.” For details about each of the school bus parking proposals, click the P&Z applications list here.

In June, the Planning and Zoning Department approved what was to be a temporary parking plan that expired Oct. 31. The new request asks that the special permit be in effect until permanent off-site parking is secured for the buses.

After the Board of Education in May awarded a $35.3 million, five-year bus contract to First Student — switching from its longtime provider, DATTCO — the bus parking arrangements on Post Road East ended June 30. 

First Student has yet to secure a permanent parking lot for its fleet of buses for Westport schools.

“Please note that the BOE and its bus operator are currently engaged in securing permanent off-site parking for the school buses,” according to the application narrative.

The same was said in June when the temporary parking plan was approved by P&Z Director Mary Young.

On Thursday, Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice and Chief Financial Officer Elio Longo both said it is the responsibility of the district’s new bus company, First Student, to secure a bus depot.

“They are working on finding one,” Scarice said.

Longo said the firm is even looking outside Westport for a spot.

The longer it takes, however, the better it could be financially for the school district.

The district could receive up to a $288,000 credit this calendar year from the firm — $24,000 a month — if parking on town property continues, Longo told the Board of Education.

Since it began using space to park buses at the Greens Farms Railroad Station, however, Longo said the district has been paying the Police Department $8,000 a month to lease those spaces. It still amounts to a $16,000 a month net gain, Longo said.

Originally, the district parked 62 school buses at five schools, including 44 between Staples High and Bedford Middle schools. The 30 buses parked at Staples have since been relocated to the Greens Farms depot.

Bedford Middle School still has 14 buses and the district wants to keep them there for now.

At least one resident sent the P&Z department an email asking that the plan be denied.

“I am absolutely opposed to the request,” wrote Ali Stanley of Willow Walk.

Stanley also spoke out against buses parked at Staples before they were moved. She wrote that neighbors are very much affected by the honking and beeping that started at 6 a.m. and again in the afternoon.

“The idling of buses and the exhaust they emitted added to the pollution of the area, not to mention the excess traffic on the already busy North Avenue,” Stanley added.

Stanley was apparently unaware the buses never left the Bedford property, which is adjacent to Staples.

“It was the only complaint we received,” Scarice said  regarding buses at Staples and Bedford.

At Long Lots, adjustments were made to the area where buses are parked, based on parent feedback, to improve traffic circulation.

Longo has told the P&Z the bus operators would comply with state law regarding idling of the vehicles and would not perform any mechanical service on school grounds.

Like the original request, the plan is for buses to leave the schools between 6 and 7 a.m. to cover morning runs before returning between 9 and 9:30 a.m. Afternoon runs will start between 1 and 2 p.m. and return between 4 and 5 p.m.

The district’s new applications also call for one fewer bus at Coleytown.

At Coleytown Elementary and Middle, located at 65 Easton Road/255 North Ave., the seven buses would occupy 45 of the complex’s 307 available spaces, with additional spots for bus drivers. The schools need 183 for their staffs.

At Long Lots on Hyde Lane, there are 10 buses, which take up 35 of the school’s 196 spaces. The application says the proposed bus parking area is near the Westport Community Gardens to avoid potential impact to abutting properties.

The requests also note that while some buses have been relocated from Staples to the Greens Farms Railroad Station, that is only in effect as long as the Town of Westport allows.

The school board would have no choice but to return for a modification of the special permit for those 30 buses should that arrangement end.

“We are in good shape for the time being,” Scarice said of the train station parking arrangement.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.