By Robin Jovanovich
In 1994, a year after becoming headmaster of Rye Country Day School, Scott Nelson, with the help of Ted Dunn, school trustee and Rye’s newly elected mayor, wrote a letter to the New York State Thruway Authority, asking if they would consider selling the unused, nearly 9-acre parcel of land on the other side of Boston Post Road to the school and the city.
“Rye Country Day needed more athletic field space, as did the community,” said Nelson in an interview on campus last week.
No agreement was reached, but Nelson is a patient and resolute man who has built a reputation on keeping his eye on the prize.
In 2015, the Thruway property was offered to the City. According to Nelson, Mayor Joe Sack, at a public meeting, stated the City didn’t have the money to purchase the land, but suggested Rye Country Day try again.
“Encouraged, the school began the process,” said Nelson. “When Mayor Sack ran for re-election in 2017, he proposed moving Rye’s DPW from Disbrow Park, at great expense, to the Thruway property to gain field space at Disbrow Park. We were stunned to say the least.”
Assemblyman Steve Otis, who was mayor of Rye for 12 years and is a Rye Country Day graduate, sponsored the legislation to sell the property to the school with the proviso that athletic facilities would be shared with the community, which angered Sack and the City Council, who claimed Otis had acted without their knowledge.
Governor Cuomo signed the amendment in 2019.
Otis later sponsored an amendment “to save the project,” said Nelson. Governor Cuomo signed the amendment in 2019.
After the school’s long negotiations with Sack’s successor, Mayor Josh Cohn, proved unsuccessful, Rye Country Day continued to pursue the property on its own.
On January 31, 2022, Rye Country Day announced that the Thruway Authority voted to approve the sale to the school.
Under the terms of the agreement, the school will pay $5.16 million (the fair market value established by the State) to the NYS Thruway Authority and offer a 29 percent shared use of new fields and any facilities to the public.
Rye Country Day will pay the entire cost, an estimated $30 million, to create athletic field space, an equipment storage area, and lavatories.
“The legislation requires that the property be used for recreation,” noted Nelson. “At the present moment, the school plan is to build a track — we have 80 students on our Track team — along with one multipurpose turf field where kids can play field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, all of which are growing sports. We’ve discussed creating both indoor and outdoor facilities.”
He added, “Our hockey rink will be 50 years old this fall, and it’s only lasted that long because we’ve had the same rink manager, Thom O’Grady, for 40 of those years! There are currently some 400 kids in Rye Rangers, and they want to play ice hockey, so that’s part of our discussion.”
Nelson said everyone on campus was excited when the Thruway news was announced. “But it’s not only a win for us, it’s a win for all the kids playing sports in the community.”
The school uses its fields from 3 to 6 on weekdays and 11 to 5 on Saturdays and new ones will be available for public use from 6 to 8 p.m. if lighted; Saturday mornings; all day Sunday; and during school vacations.
Nelson noted that Rye Country Day’s quest for field space precedes him. “The school has been trying to find more field space since 1958, when the State was in the process of building I-95 and, using eminent domain, paid the school $67,500 for the playing fields in front of it to complete that section of the highway.
“At that time, the school was co-ed until ninth grade, but before we went fully co-ed in 1964, we wisely bought property to the north of us for playing fields,” said Nelson.
Once the board of trustees finalizes the plan, an environmental review will be performed by the City of Rye, and, if negative, the school will apply for permits. Nelson said it is the school’s hope that the new fields and facilities will be ready in time for the 2024-2025 school year.
Headmaster Nelson is retiring this summer, but he promised to come back for the ribbon cutting.