For the Record: Otis Response to Cohn’s Remarks
The following letter was addressed to Mayor Cohn and the City Council and forwarded to the paper.
The purpose of this letter is to correct for the record significant misstatements and inaccuracies made by you and other members of the City Council regarding the Thruway field issue. I hope these details will help the Council support efforts to make sure that we do not forfeit this opportunity for new field space for the community.
Your November 6 comments on the issue of “perpetuity” in relation to a draft agreement with the school were inaccurate and not relevant. The 2017 statute clearly states that a shared use agreement can be changed at any time with mutual consent of the city and the school. See section 3: “Such an agreement may be amended from time to time as may be agreed to by the City of Rye and the Rye Country Day School.”
The public’s use of the property is protected in perpetuity as a requirement of the state statute. While a shared use agreement was my preferred model for proceeding, a shared use agreement with the City is not needed to protect the public’s right of use. It is protected by the 2017 statute and by the 2019 amendment. The 2019 amendment does not repeal the obligation of the school to share use. Section one of the 2017 statute states,
“A parcel of such certain land has been identified, which under its present jurisdiction is owned by the people of the state of New York, which may be utilized by the Rye Country Day School to allow realization of such opportunities for recreation and education for the school and the public.” That section is not repealed by the amendment. In fact, the 2019 bill enhances the protection of public use beyond the 2017 legislation by specifying a minimum percentage of public use that matches the minimum the city and school had an understanding on in 2018.
It is not accurate to tell the public that the City Council is protecting public use when clearly that protection was included in both the 2017 statute and law as amended by the 2019 legislation.
In addition, the school has communicated that they currently give preference to Rye not-for-profit sports groups and that the minimum identified in draft use schedules is only a minimum. The school has indicated that when the school does not need their assigned time slots, they would be added to field time to be made available to the public user groups.
You also inaccurately claimed that the school would receive a financial advantage because an auction is not part of the transaction. In 2015, when the state informed me of their intention to sell the property at auction, my highest priority request was that the state would not auction the property, but instead sell it to the community for recreation. My view has always been that any auction process would leave the recreation community in Rye at risk of losing the property to other uses. Recreation use of this parcel has been the official goal of the City of Rye for a few decades. The parcel is included in the City of Rye Recreation Master Plan, a plan developed with significant community participation.
Your comments regarding auction at the November 6 Council meeting, and in language used in your letter to the state on November 4, seemed to miss a pivotal point; an agreed sale for recreation, rather than an auction, was vital to protecting Rye from non-recreational uses on the parcel. The school will be paying full market price for the property, which will be measured by an updated appraisal conducted by the Thruway Authority. Had the city not declined the opportunity to purchase the property in 2016, the city would have also benefited from the commitment I secured to acquire the property without auction. The city is not making a financial contribution to the acquisition or the project.
The factual record of what transpired after the city and the school received notice of the measure proves the inaccuracy of statements that the new legislation “undermined” the city’s ability to negotiate.
- The school notified the city that the school still preferred to proceed under a shared use agreement even with knowledge of the legislation.
- The record shows that it was the school that made significant concessions after the amendment passed, not the city.
- Most significantly, the school acceded to the city’s request to have Rye Recreation be in charge of scheduling public use times for the new field, softened considerably the liquidated damages provisions that concerned the city, and increased the percentage of field time the city would receive at no charge. These concessions by the school were all made after the passage of the 2019 amendment.
The main problem has been that the City Council has sought to convert the shared use agreement process from what was intended to be a schedule and apportionment of school and public group use into a vehicle to claim ownership-style control of the property beyond the scope of the 2017 authorizing legislation. The school very clearly informed the city that for fiduciary, liability, insurance, and safety reasons, they could not dilute the responsibilities of ownership with joint control by the city council. They have also clearly communicated that these attempts were beyond the scope of the 2017 legislation.
At the November 6 City Council meeting, you and others on the Council, made claims about how the 2019 state legislation disrupted your efforts in negotiations. The intent of the legislation was to serve as a backup plan. My simultaneous communication to the city and the school on July 24 clearly indicated new efforts to reach an agreement were my priority and that I was holding off on requesting consideration by the governor to give those efforts a chance. I wrote, “The legislation has passed both houses of the legislature but has not yet been delivered to the governor for his signature. I await word from the city and the school whether we will proceed under the shared-use agreement or the covenant outlined in the new legislation.”
Rather than disadvantaging the city, the new legislation gave the City Council a second chance to secure a shared use agreement with the school. The new legislation prevented what would have been a debacle for the city council. The City would be blamed if the community lost the property because the Council misjudged their negotiating strategy.
In addition, the school offered an October 16 draft they were willing to sign. The Council had the opportunity to respond with reasonable changes and an agreement could have been achieved. Instead, the City issued new demands throughout the document, a response intended as a clear rejection of the school’s offer. If you valued a shared use agreement, the Council’s response to the October 16 draft could have been a way to demonstrate such intentions.
The 2019 legislation was passed because in tracking the discussions between the city and the school for the first year and half of your tenure as a council, it became clear that a backup mechanism was necessary to protect the opportunity to convert a valuable state property for use by recreation groups in Rye. The school, frustrated with constantly changing positions of the Council, would have walked away from the project in August and spent their resources on recreational facilities at other locations if the new legislation were not an option.
Today, you have an opportunity to be part of the city’s long legacy of expanding recreation facilities by supporting school acquisition of additional field space that will benefit the entire community.
Rye needs additional field space and cannot afford to lose this opportunity. I have no doubt that this legislation protects the interests of all of Rye and the recreational needs of many young athletes. I encourage you to focus on these facts, the actual record, and the best interests of the City of Rye. Let’s work together.
Steven Otis, State Assemblyman