By CHRIS EBERHART
Frustration over Sustainable Playland, Inc.’s plans to redevelop the Rye Playland amusement park boiled over this week with Westchester County legislators ripping into the group’s parking analysis and lack of an overflow parking plan.
The status of Playland’s future remains in limbo as Westchester County elected officials analyze a proposal to transform the park into a year-round facility. The City of Rye is now challenging the county’s authority to lead any oversight of the project. File photo
Meanwhile, Rye City began ramping up its legal defense against the county administration on the basis of jurisdiction.
The redevelopment plan brought forth by SPI, a Rye-based not-for-profit, which was selected by Republican County Executive Rob Astorino in 2012, has been under attack from critics since the release of a Playland Improvement Plan, PIP, that went public in October 2013 detailing more specifically what the vision of the SPI plan would entail.
It was only then that the general public and homeowners neighboring the park became aware of a 95,000-square-foot field house proposal to be constructed in the Playland parking lot, yards away from their homes.
Since then, the size of the field house has been reduced to 82,500 square-feet, but the proposal remains controversial with opposition seeming to grow as more information on the plan gets filtered out.
The City of Rye, has finally decided to dig its heels in the ground, citing what it believes to be case law confirming its legal authority as lead agency over the proposal, which would
allow the city to make a final determination on it.
Attorney Michael Gerrard, of the law firm Arnold and Porter, LLP, who was recently hired by the city for a starting salary of $10,000 to ensure Rye’s interests are heard as it relates to Playland, said any ill effects such as potential floodwater displacement into Rye’s streets and increases to traffic in the neighborhood will be felt by residents of Rye. That gives the city the right to be named lead agency, he said.
In a March 20 letter from the law firm to County Attorney Robert Meehan, Gerrard states, “The [Rye] City Council currently intends to designate itself as the lead agency in view of the fact that PIP [Playland Improvement Plan] falls entirely within the city’s borders and its impacts are primarily of local significance.”
Gerrard goes on to say, “If the county declares itself lead agency, as we understand to be its plan, the city reserves its right to invoke the dispute resolution procedures under SEQRA, for when a lead agency cannot be agreed upon. At that time, the City Council would ask the state commissioner of the Environmental Conservation to designate it as the lead agency.”
Rye Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, said the letter is designed to ensure Rye has a seat at the table and voice in the outcome of Playland but said the City Council hopes to avoid taking the matter to court.
“It’s not the desire for the City Council to commence litigation,” Sack said. “It’s the desire for the City Council to ensure the views of all Rye citizens are heard and acted upon. The letter was a means to reiterate what we believe the city’s rights and options may be.”
But it is quite possible that the two sides could end up locked in a legal battle if the county continues to leave city officials out of the process.
The Astorino administration has maintained its authority over the project and the amusement park, which is owned and operated by Westchester government. The administration previously sent a letter to Mayor Sack stating that the city would not be designated as an interested party in the review process.
As the city and county administration play tug of war over authority, SPI is also facing pressure from the Westchester County Board of Legislators, which continues to probe the plan.
County legislators questioned SPI during a March 25 meeting of the board’s subcommittee, the Labor, Parks, Planning and Housing Committee, over its parking analysis and criticized the group for its lack of a concrete parking overflow plan.
Chairman of the Board of Legislators and member of the parks committee, Mike Kaplowitz, a Somers Democrat, went as far as telling SPI that it does not have a majority vote among the full 17-member legislative board, which is required for any physical alterations to be made to the park.
“Time is getting short,” Kaplowitz said. “You’re not going to get nine votes out of this board…if you don’t put in a parking plan either on-site or go off-site and get shuttle buses.”
As part of SPI’s parking analysis, John Meyer Consulting provided projected attendance data based off of 2010 to 2013 attendance numbers at the amusement park.
Richard Pearson, of John Meyer Consulting, said the consulting firm increased attendance by 50 and 75 percent from the averages of the years mentioned and concluded there will be three and four days, respectively, when the parking lot will be filled to capacity because of scheduled events like fireworks and concerts. Those projections do not include the Fourth of July.
But that assessment is now being called into questioned.
According to the updated PIP, SPI’s designated amusement park operator for Playland, Central Amusements, Inc.,—the company that runs the rides at Coney Island—projected an 84 percent increase above the 2013 attendance number by the final year of SPI’s six-year renovation project. According to SPI’s plan, that equates to nine days where the parking lot is filled to capacity.
Pearson said, during known busy days, the field house will close up shop and free up parking to amusement park patrons. This would conceivably reduce the number of days the parking lot is filled to capacity.
“There are peak parking days like the Fourth of July,” said SPI president Kim Morque. “But how many peak days do we really have to contend with? Historically, it has been half a dozen, maybe. Going back, maybe it was 12.”
Legislators also point out the 2010 to 2013 Playland attendance numbers, which were used as a baseline for the SPI consultant’s projections, were during the economic recession years when the park was struggling.
Legislator Peter Harckham, a Katonah Democrat and chairman of the parks committee, said the attendance numbers from 2010 to 2013 are “the lowest attendance records we have.”
Kaplowitz is worried about the ramifications of park patrons who are turned away from the park by a sign on I-95 saying there’s no more parking at Playland.
“If you see a sign board on I-95 saying Playland lot filled, those people are never coming back, and I can ensure you they’re telling 10 people they know never to go to Playland,” Kapolowitz said.
Morque said SPI is looking into off-site parking within a mile or two of Playland to make up for the lost spaces, which he said has always been part of the plan. He said they would include shuttle buses and look into increased bus services with the county.
“There are thousands of parking spaces that sit idle on weekends after 5 p.m.,” Morque said. “We are exploring those. There [are] two train stations nearby that are historically for off-site parking, particularly the Rye Metro-North station. And there are office parks and other parking resources. And that’s part of the plan moving forward.”
With parking still a major cause for concern for committee members, a second meeting pertaining to parking and traffic is scheduled for April 16.
The parks committee is scheduled to vote on the SPI plan during one of its May meetings.
When reached by phone on Wednesday, Ned McCormack, communications director for the county executive, declined comment.