By CHRIS EBERHART
Coming on the heels of the City of Rye’s recent announcement that it plans to designate itself as lead agency, Sustainable Playland, Inc. has suspended its participation in the county Board of Legislators’ review process of their plan to reinvent Playland.
The Board of Legislators subcommittee Labor, Parks, Planning and Housing had been vetting SPI’s Playland Improvement Plan, which details SPI’s renovation proposal for the historic Westchester amusement park, over the past couple of weeks.
Rye City’s recent self-assertion as lead agency, coupled with a county legislator’s pending lawsuit over the asset management agreement, has now cast serious doubt over SPI’s future as the park’s operator.
The city’s recent involvement and claims that it would contest the project unless granted authority over its review served as the final act precipitating the group from pulling out, according to SPI officials.
The decision by the Rye-based group didn’t seem to surprise County Legislator Catherine Parker, a Rye Democrat and former member of the Rye City Council. “There is no wonder that SPI has basically said they’re done unless the county can proceed without the threat of litigation from Rye,” she told the Review.
In a letter to the county, SPI President Kim Morque appealed to Republican County Executive Rob Astorino’s administration to clear away the uncertainties caused by the looming legal issues and said SPI will suspend its participation in the review process until those issues are resolved.
“Essentially, it’s a timeout,” Legislator Mike Kaplowitz, a Yorktown Democrat and chairman of the Board of Legislators, said during an April 1 meeting of the Labor, Parks, Planning and Housing Committee.
Rye City designated itself as the lead agency on the matter in a March 20 letter to the county administration.
Michael Garrard, of the law firm Arnold and Porter, LLP, which is representing the City of Rye in the ongoing Playland dispute, said the county must receive zoning and environmental approvals from Rye in addition to accepting the city’s self-appointment to lead agency.
Rye City Councilwoman and Deputy Mayor Laura Brett, a Republican, said, “This proposal comes with significant changes to the area, including the field house that should get reviewed by our planning and zoning boards…We want to make sure the city’s interests are protected and the improvements done to Playland are consistent with the surrounding neighborhood.”
“It wasn’t the city’s intent to sideline SPI’s proposal, but at the same time, we have to protect our residents,” Brett said.
But Parker didn’t agree with the City Council’s decision to hire its land use attorney saying it was a waste of money because the county would’ve listened to Rye’s input.
“In my opinion, hiring land use attorneys at $10,000 was unnecessary,” Parker said. “At a meeting between Mayor Joe Sack, Deputy Mayor Laura Brett, Deputy County Executive Kevin Plunkett and myself, Plunkett stated that while the county would be the lead agency, [the county] would take an advisory opinion from Rye.”
Parker went on to say, “I stated that if Mayor Sack directed staff and commissions, Rye could bring their findings to the meeting with the Board of Legislators. As a legislator for Rye, I feel an additional sense of responsibility to incorporate the advisory opinion of Rye into my deliberations.”
Rye’s demand to be heard came three months after county Legislator Ken Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat and former chairman of the Board of Legislators, filed a second lawsuit over SPI’s asset management agreement with the Astorino administration, claiming the agreement was illegal and should be nullified. A renewed lawsuit by Jenkins continues today.
The asset management agreement, between Astorino and SPI, allowed the nonprofit group to renovate the Rye-based amusement park and take over its day-to-day operations for a period of 10 years.
The agreement was approved by the county Board of Acquisition and Contract on April 18, 2013, and later signed by both parties in July 2013.
In May 2013—before the agreement was signed—Jenkins filed the first of two lawsuits, which claimed the asset management agreement was essentially a 10-year lease and thus requires approval from the Board of Legislators. Because approval was not granted by the Board of Legislators, Jenkins said in the lawsuit, Astorino acted beyond his authority as county executive and therefore the agreement should be nullified.
But New York Supreme Court Associate Justice Barbara G. Zambelli disagreed and dismissed the lawsuit on Dec. 24, 2013, in a ruling that said the agreement was not a lease, which meant Astorino acted within his power as county executive.
Jenkins countered the dismissal with a second lawsuit—filed on Dec. 30, 2013 and is now ready to be heard in court—that is essentially the same as the first with the exception of the inclusion of SPI—a formality because all parties have to be included in a lawsuit after an agreement is executed. Jenkins told the Review it didn’t matter if the agreement was a lease or not; it’s still illegal because it wasn’t approved by the Board of Legislators.
With SPI’s April 1 announcement, the group has chosen to watch from the bench as the Jenkins lawsuit unfolds in court and the tug of war between city and county over jurisdiction continues.
“Unfortunately, the current process for moving forward does not reflect a public-private partnership either in spirit or actuality,” Morque wrote in the letter to Astorino. “Our primary concern is that unresolved issues threaten to delay SPI’s revitalization of the park in ways that will remove the viability of our implementation plans in terms of both economics and timing.”
In the letter, Morque cited financial strain, as well as the legal stressors, as part of SPI’s decision to suspend the nonprofit’s involvement in the review process.
“SPI is not a deep-pocketed private corporation,” Morque said in his letter. “We are a group of citizens who came together with a civic mission to preserve one of the county’s greatest assets. As such, it is neither realistic nor feasible to expect that SPI can remain committed to the project indefinitely.”
Although SPI is taking a step back, the residents neighboring Playland that have been fighting this proposal—specifically the field house, currently proposed at 82,500 square-feet after SPI revised its plan, that would be built just yards away from their homes—believe the review process will eventually resume.
Mack Cunningham, a former Rye City councilman and staunch opponent of the proposal, said, “I don’t think this thing is going away. There’s too much time, money and politics invested in this thing. I think it’s more of a timeout. But the neighbors are still entrenched in their thought process that the [field house] shouldn’t be there.”
Jenkin’s lawsuit has already headed to court and will unfold in the upcoming weeks.
In the meantime, Astorino, a Republican candidate for governor this year, said he will be working with Kaplowitz and Rye City Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, within the next couple of days to attempt to clear the uncertainties hanging over SPI and its Playland renovation proposal.
“For four years, our goal has been to save Playland,” Astorino said. “We have reached the point that litigation now threatens our improvement plans and the park itself. It is now time for elected leaders to do everything in their power to resolve the legal impediments that stand in the way of moving forward on saving Playland for future generations.”