By LIZ BUTTON
Two months into his term, Mayor Joe Sack has stepped more fully into his newly minted leadership role, taking it upon himself to organize what turned out to be a three-and-a-half hour discussion at Rye City Hall on Sustainable Playland Inc.’s proposed plan to reinvent the county-owned Playland amusement park.
The well-attended forum, which featured SPI principals, residents and members of the Board of Legislators, served, in part, as a way for Sack to refute criticism that he is not willing to confront the issue of SPI’s plans for Playland head-on.
Sack, who also moderated the session, has been called out by supporters and detractors alike for failing to take a firm position supporting or opposing the Rye-based nonprofit’s plan for the historic Rye landmark or on the 95,000-square-foot field house that became the most controversial aspect of the plan last fall‑both during last year’s mayoral campaign and in his tenure as mayor thus far.
Even now, Sack says he is personally undecided on SPI’s plan; a definitive decision on the plan cannot be made until the environmental effects of the field house are calibrated and reviewed by the Democrat-led county Board of Legislators and its Parks, Labor, Planning and Housing Committee.
This committee, one of the board’s subcommittees, which is currently reviewing the plan, is tentatively scheduled to vote on May 13 on whether it will have an environmental impact on the area.
In public, Sack, a Republican, has opted to stress the importance of communication and productive dialogue among people on both sides of the issue, rather than take a firm stance one way or the other.
Sack was one of the Rye City Council members under the administration of former Mayor Douglas French, who approved a resolution by the City Council in December 2012 to support the SPI plan. Looking back now that he, like many others, has resolved to take a closer look at the plan’s field zone area after resident concerns about the enlarged size of the field house were brought to light in October 2013, Sack said he attributes his vote at the time to a lack of specific information and the influence of popular support for Sustainable Playland.
“I got swept up in that tidal wave. Now I am trying to return to the important task we have to do of asking those tough questions so that we can make an actual decision,” Sack said. “The Board of Legislators are the ones who are going to have to look people in the eye and say they agree or disagree that there is no significant environmental impact. I think people ought to turn their attention to the county board.”
While Sack has been making the effort of late to try to assure the city has input in this approval process at the county level, in March 2011 the then councilman abstained from a vote to approve a set of guidelines for the county created by the city’s own Playland Strategic Planning Working Group.
The resolution, passed by a 6-0 vote with Sack’s abstention, was put forth by the French administration in anticipation of the design proposals that would be submitted to the county that month.
“I felt uncomfortable that we were passing a resolution to support something that we didn’t really know everything about yet,” said Sack, who stressed that he has always been in favor of the general concept behind SPI and shares its mantra of sustainability.
Sack said the 2011 resolution was “kind of worded broadly.”
“It was really just supporting general principles,” he said.
Sack faults French, who was on a county Feasibility Committee appointed by Republican County Executive Rob Astorino to review each of the 12 Playland proposals, for not providing enough information to the council and the community throughout the decision process.
Being on the county’s committee, French, Sack said, had greater access to information than the rest of the City Council and should have been more forthcoming.
“French wasn’t particularly concerned with building consensus or asking tough questions. He seemed to be more concerned with being an advocate and a cheerleader for [SPI’s plan] than asking pointed questions,” Sack said.
French, who left office at the end of 2013, said Sack has had all of the same information he has had since the county executive first announced the initiative to reinvent Playland years ago. The plan SPI originally submitted in March 2011 in response to Astorino’s 2010 request for proposals to reinvent Playland had the field house at 78,000 square-feet.
While SPI has not yet specified when the size of the proposed field house changed, French said he has always been clear on his position, which is that he supports the SPI plan with its original, smaller-size field house, since the city needs one.
Sack’s position on the plan continues to remain unclear, even now, French said.
This is three years after the county announced its intention to reinvent the park, and five months since the plan with the enlarged field house was submitted to the county, the former mayor said.
“All we know is rather than lead, Sack is looking again to falsely manufacture blame on an important issue for Rye,” French said.
Countering accusations of inaction, Sack continues to try to get the county to recognize the city’s concerns, even after being informed in a Feb. 18 letter from Deputy County Executive Kevin Plunkett that the county would not change its position that the county Planning Department has the sole lead in its environmental review of the field zone plan and would not engage Rye as an interested party in the process.
Plunkett did insist the county is willing to consider input from the city, its land use boards and residents.
Former Rye City Councilman Mack Cunningham, who does not live in the Ryan Park neighborhood that immediately borders the amusement park but has stood at the helm of the neighborhood’s opposition movement, said that, to an extent, he believes Sack has redeemed himself from his past inaction on the issue through efforts to organize the forum and attempt to get Rye a seat at the bargaining table.
That the Rye City mayor have a clear voice on this matter has become even more crucial now that the Board of Legislators’ parks committee has released a set schedule of meeting dates during which members, some of whom were at the Feb. 25 forum, will make a decision on both the county administration’s declaration that the plan will pose no significant environmental impact on the area, and on the SPI plan itself.