County: SPI alone in court

Support for Sustainable Playland, Inc. seems to be waning after the resignation of one of its co-founders and a public about-face by a member of the Westchester County Board of Legislators who was a prior proponent of the plan. File photo

Support for Sustainable Playland, Inc. seems to be waning after the resignation of one of its co-founders and a public about-face by a member of the Westchester County Board of Legislators who was a prior proponent of the plan. File photo

By CHRIS EBERHART
and LIZ BUTTON

Sustainable Playland, Inc. will not be represented by Westchester County in current and future lawsuits, according to Bill Mooney, senior advisor to Republican County Executive Rob Astorino, despite previous assertions of indemnity from both SPI and the county executive. 

According to an April 30 letter to Astorino from SPI President Kim Morque, the understanding the county would represent SPI—the Rye-based nonprofit chosen by Astorino to run and renovate Playland—in current and future litigation was the reason the nonprofit returned to the table after a four-week hiatus to the Board of Legislators’ review of its Playland Improvement Plan, which details its proposal to renovate the historic amusement park into a year-round destination.

Astorino highlighted this point a day later in his May 1 State of the County address in White Plains.

“One thing SPI was concerned about was that its members—all volunteers—would be covered by the county in the event of lawsuits. We gave them that assurance,” the county executive said during his speech.

These statements contradict a section in the 10-year asset management agreement, which the county signed on July 23, 2013, turning over Playland’s day-to-day operations to SPI, stating SPI is “to provide defense for and defend, at its sole expense, any and all claims, demands or causes of action directly or indirectly arising out of this agreement and to bear all other costs and expenses related thereto.”

Mooney said during a May 13 meeting of the Board of Legislators’ Labor, Parks, Planning and Housing Committee, a board subcommittee which was tasked with vetting SPI’s improvement plan, that the county will not represent SPI and SPI will file a notice of appearance to defend itself against the lawsuit filed by county Legislator Ken Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat, over its asset management agreement with Astorino, which Jenkins says constitutes a lease.

“There is no request for indemnification. There is no request to pay for any lawyers, nor have we agreed to do that,” Mooney said.

SPI spokesperson Geoff Thompson referred calls to the Astorino administration about assurances that SPI would receive indemnification from the county. However, Ned McCormack a spokesperson for Astorino, could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Legislator Peter Harckham, a Katonah Democrat and head of the committee, said the county covering a vendor in court is something that’s never been done before.

Legislator Catherine Borgia, an Ossining Democrat and majority leader, said she would not support the county representing SPI in legal affairs.

SPI originally backed away from the legislators’ review on April 1 because of pending legal actions and the looming possibility of a lawsuit in the future from the City of Rye, Playland’s host community, over jurisdiction.

In February, the county rejected Rye’s request to be named lead agency in the project’s SEQR environmental review process, which would have given the city final say over the project, because it would impact Rye residents.

In a March 20 letter, the city’s lawyers informed the county, which has declared itself lead agency through its own Planning Department, that if it does not cede lead status to Rye, the city reserves its right to invoke dispute resolution procedures under SEQR.

Rye City Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, said the city has not commenced any litigation against the county or SPI and there is no current plan to file a lawsuit.

“We want to do everything we can to avoid litigation,” he said.

According to Sack, all Rye has ever said is there needs to be a full review of the environmental impacts of the project, and it should go through the city’s land use boards.

Issues surrounding traffic, flooding, noise and lighting have been raised by Rye citizens from the neighborhood surrounding the amusement park.

“All we are doing is what anyone in our situation would do, which is to stand up for ourselves,” Sack said.

As the process continues to drag on all fronts, public support for SPI seems to be waning.

In view of the current and potential lawsuits, Legislator Catherine Parker, a Rye Democrat who took office this year, withdrew her support for SPI’s plan on May 13.

Parker previously expressed her support for the plan in 2012 when she was a member of the Rye City Council that unanimously approved SPI’s vision before neighborhood and environmental concerns were brought to light. Sack was also a member of that council.

“It has been very clear for some time that ligation was looming on several levels, and there was acknowledgement that further litigation was inevitable,” Parker said following Tuesday’s committee meeting. “At the end of the day, it’s been four years since [Astorino’s] RFP [to renovate Playland was answered]. I’d like to see something new for 2015. We should not continue on this path with SPI.”

Mayor Sack said Parker’s withdrawal of support at this time is perplexing.

“Ms. Parker initially supported the Playland Improvement Plan wholeheartedly before the environmental impacts were fully vetted. And now she is opposing the PIP wholeheartedly before the environmental impacts are vetted,” he said.

In any case, SPI lost a vote from the Board of Legislators, which has the final say on all capital improvements made to the county-owned park. SPI’s plan has to pass through the Democratic-led parks subcommittee before heading to the floor for a full board vote. July 1 is the scheduled vote date for the subcommittee.

Parker’s withdrawal of support comes a week after The Friends of Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary, an environmental group concerned with the area behind Playland, withdrew its support for SPI. The Friends said it does not support SPI’s plan to use the gravel lot and a grassy field next to Long Island Sound for parking.

To compound issues for SPI, one of the nonprofit’s founding members, Treasurer Peter Rukeyser, resigned from the group last month leaving it with no founding members.

He told the Review in a phone interview last week, “The plan has morphed from the plan I was excited about to one I’m not.”

Rukeyser said the vision changed after a “never ending and dysfunctional county process.”

In Rukeyser’s resignation letter, which was obtained by the Review, he wrote, “We were seemingly pressured to
increase the amusement zone by some [Westchester County] Board of Legislator members at the expense of the bulk of the great lawn,” Rukeyser said. “This move, combined with the sizeable field house, causes an irreconcilable problem with the lack of available parking.”

SPI co-founder Dhruv Narain resigned in 2012 after it was revealed he owed more than $230,000 in back taxes.

Geoff Thompson, spokesperson for SPI, said Bruce Mcleod will fill the vacated treasurer’s position on the SPI executive board.

“Mr. Rukeyser raised some interesting points,” Thompson said. “We have adjusted this plan in response to input from individuals and legislators to try and accommodate and compromise. We have compromised…The core of the vision is absolutely still there, and it’s to preserve and restore the park and ensure its long-term viable future.”

-With reporting by Phil Noble

CONTACT: christopher@hometwn.com;
liz@hometwn.com