Thruway Field Talks Come to a Halt
BY TOM MCDERMOTT and ROBIN JOVANOVICH
No sooner had the Pledge of Allegiance been recited at the November 6 City Council meeting than the Council Room erupted in a barrage of criticism and charges of subterfuge.
The first to speak was Councilmember Sara Goddard, who was visibly upset. The cause was the letter Mayor Cohn sent to Governor Cuomo on November 4 asking him to veto an amended bill allowing the school to purchase Thruway property across Boston Post Road for playing fields without a shared use agreement (SUA) with the City. “This puts the land out for auction, which means the community-at-large will lose access to valuable athletic space,” Goddard explained.
The mayor had called a special executive session Sunday night, two days after Rye Country Day notified the City that it was terminating negotiations for an SUA. Goddard was unable to attend the meeting. Notwithstanding the fact that there was a quorum, she decried the fact that the mayor didn’t even reveal the “urgent” reason for the meeting until after the letter was sent to the governor.
Councilmember Danielle Tagger-Epstein, who was also not at the special meeting, attacked the mayor for keeping the process “shrouded in secrecy.”
The letter was a bit of déjà vu. In 2017, Cohn’s predecessor Joe Sack had written to the governor asking him not to sign the original bill, supported by Assemblyman Steve Otis. Cohn and other Councilmembers, further echoing the 2017 Council, blamed Otis for secretly forging ahead with the amendment. “The bill undermined the City’s negotiating position,” said Cohn.
While there was no public vote, Cohn described the Council as being 5-2 in favor of sending the letter – Goddard and Tagger-Epstein being the dissenters.
Eric Bommer, a longtime leader of the Rye Rangers hockey program, a major user of the school’s rink, chastised the Council for failing to reach an agreement over 22 months, saying, “The state legislation is our only hope that this property is secured for recreation.”
Cohn provided justification for his action. “We wanted to stop the legislation in order to see if we could return to an agreement with Rye Country Day. Assemblyman Otis passed a new bill without consultation with the City.”
He added, “The Rye Country Day School demanded to retain full discretion over facilities and changes to facilities, as well as rental terms. The City recognized that could mean the end of shared use and we asked for a statement of principle. The school also seemed unwilling to specify what the initial build would be — field likely, ice rink maybe.
Reached by phone, Otis said, “The amended bill supported by Shelley Mayer and myself was to make sure that if the parties could not agree, the school, which is prepared to invest $30 million by itself, might finalize a purchase — a much better outcome than having a commercial development on the site.”
Councilmember Julie Souza characterized the two sides as having not been too far apart at one point. “But the talks broke down when Steve Otis secretly had the bill passed.”
Andrea Sullivan, president of the school’s Board of Trustees told the paper, “Our position has been the same since the beginning. We are more than happy to share, but we cannot allow the City to have control. We have a fiduciary responsibility to future boards. The City has layers of approvals for anything we would want to do with the property already.”
In a letter to the governor dated November 5, Sullivan stated that the talks had terminated and detailed the school’s commitment to allow local athletic organizations to use their athletic facilities.
In a similar letter, she notified Mayer and Otis of the termination of talks, characterizing the City as “not being willing to enter into an agreement that would work for both parties.”
A principal of one of Rye’s athletic organizations called the City’s failure to negotiate a deal a disappointing miss of a great opportunity, saying, “We don’t need the City to negotiate a use schedule. We already do that. We needed an opportunity to have facilities to share.”
In reaction to claims that Otis’ secret maneuvering had scuttled any deal, the former mayor commented, “Mayor Cohn’s comments were inaccurate in most respects tonight.” Asked about his bias towards the school as an alum, he countered, “I was mayor for 12 years. I have always been interested in getting more playing fields for the community, and I am interested in that now.”