Column: How effective is environmental protection in Rye?

Now that we have no less than five lawyers on the dais in City Hall, we can expect legal issues to be handled not just competently, but expertly. Above all, legal issues must be identified and dealt with, not ignored. We have a problem along those lines right now. It concerns the small park at the corner of the Post Road and Central Avenue.carey

Both the history of the park and New York State’s environmental protection laws suggest that the park cannot be freely turned into a parking lot. The Rye Chronicle of April 27, 1967, reported that, “The [Conservation] Society is also building a ‘parklet’ on the corner of Central Avenue and the Boston Post Road and a strip park, which will run on both sides of Blind Brook from this point to the nature center.”

On Aug. 10, 1967, the Chronicle published a photo of Mayor Ed Grainger, my predecessor, “looking at the Trailside Parkette on the corner of the Boston Post Road and Central Avenue, which was built with funds and volunteer labor supplied by the Rye Conservation Society. The Parkette is at the entrance of the strip park running along Blind Brook, for which the society gave $1,000 to hire two boys this summer to build.”

I leave it to our battery of legal talent on the City Council dais to opine on whether the transaction just described created a binding obligation on the part of the city to maintain the Parkette as a park. We have known since law school that even a pepper corn is ample consideration to create a contractual obligation, not to mention a substantial sum like $1,000.

Apart from the binding contract issue, there is the question of the terms on which the city acquired the open space. The first step was the lease to the city. The council’s minutes of May 3, 1967, say “the mayor advised that Christ’s Church has generously offered to lease this property to the city without charge for use as a park and trailway.” The offer was unanimously accepted. I was on the council at the time.

The lease from the church to the city dated April 28, 1967, said that the land was “to be used as a park and trailway for the use of the residents of the City of Rye.”

No such language was evidently considered necessary in the deed by which the church later gave the property to the city; it must have been understood to be carried over by implication from the lease into the deed.

We lawyers learn that land “dedicated” for park purposes cannot be “alienated,” i.e., used for non-park purposes, without the consent of the state Legislature. Perhaps our five lawyers on the dais can reach a consensus on whether the history recited above made out such a “dedication.”

This brings us to a legal issue that has not been adequately discussed publicly, only brushed off.

At the council meeting on Jan. 29, Douglas Carey asked if an environmental impact assessment had been done in connection with the graveling over of the turf at the “Parkette.” The mayor quickly said no. The city manager, without explanation, echoed the mayor. There was no further discussion of environmental concerns from any member of the council, even from those who are lawyers and might be expected to shed light on matters within their area of professional responsibility.

The question is, can open land, whether or not dedicated for park purposes, be used by a municipality for commercial purposes without first being subjected to environmental impact review? This is not for me to determine, but the lawyers on the dais should each reach an independent conclusion based on familiarity with the intricacies of environmental protection law.

Anyone interested in the details can read the SEQR Handbook issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. What we don’t want to see happen is some agency of the city issuing a quick negative declaration denying the existence of any possible impact on the environment, just to see if anyone cares enough to take an opposing view in court. Any Rye resident would have standing in court, as a third-party beneficiary of the language “for the use of the residents of the City of Rye.”

In my opinion, the degradation of open space by making a parking lot out of a park, whether or not the park has been “dedicated,” cannot help but impact the environment adversely. I hope all our lawyers on the dais will give this a hard look, cooperating with each other like members of a law firm. Anyone elected or appointed to the City Council should be prepared to bring to the council’s work the expertise gained from her/his occupation or profession.