By Jamie Jensen
What looked like a long shot just a few months ago now seems a distinct possibility. The 2022 Rye Town Park Commission budget includes the purchase of electric lawn maintenance and landscaping equipment and funding that will bring lawn and ground maintenance in-house over the course of the year. Rye Town Park is going green!
In January, Park Director Russell Gold attended the monthly meeting of the Rye City Sustainability Committee to seek their endorsement for a budget proposal he would present to the Rye Town Park Commission the following week. He requested a $37,000 capital expenditure to purchase two 60-inch radius riding mowers, one backpack blower, two push mowers, one weed whacker, and one hedge trimmer — all powered by rechargeable batteries.
“We are not just talking the talk, we are walking the walk,” said Gold, who also proposed changes in operating expenses to include two dedicated groundskeepers to take over lawn care. At present, the grounds are maintained by an outside vendor, Greenway Property Services, at an annual cost of $22,000. The company uses loud, gas combustion equipment.
City Councilman Bill Henderson, the Sustainability Committee’s liaison to the Council, joined the January Zoom call. He raised questions familiar across the city that are pertinent to the City’s proposed leaf blower regulations: Is the technology of EV landscaping equipment up to par? Will we be investing in machinery that can’t yet handle the job? Both Henderson and, later, Mayor Josh Cohn referred to a “wet leaf blowingdemonstration” in December 2021 that suggested the electric equipment currently on the market is insufficiently powerful and may be too slow for day-to-day maintenance by the City’s DPW.
At the RTP Commission budget presentation, the questions continued. Representative (?? first name) Jackson from Rye Neck voiced concern that the staff might not be properly trained to take on the work in-house. In the end, the Commission was not ready to commit, and the discussion was tabled until February.
Despite these concerns, Gold and Rye Town Administrator Debbie Reisner persisted. “Going electric is absolutely achievable and we are working in that direction,” said Reisner. “We have a pilot program in Crawford Park to emulate and know exactly what equipment we need to purchase.” Gold noted that moving maintenance in-house will save money over the long term, lead to better managed services and a healthier environment for patrons and staff, and will ultimately meet the growing public demand for a greener, more energy-efficient and sustainable approach to park management. The use of EV equipment will also reduce noise pollution – a regular complaint from residents who live near the park.
Crawford is one of only two parks in Westchester County to receive American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA) certification. To become certified, local communities must reduce the impact of gas-powered equipment on the environment while creating “green collar” jobs.
Having visited the beautifully renovated Crawford Mansion and well-maintained grounds before, I returned to Crawford Park to see firsthand the equipment Gold proposed in action. What I learned is that much can be achieved if you have the expertise, in-house, to get it done.
I met with Rye Town’s Director of Grounds and Facilities, Vic Federico, and his staff —Angel Coyt, Matthew Garofalo, and Andrew Maroquin — for a demonstration. Two of these young men worked as seasonal employees at Rye Town Park and now are trained EV groundskeepers at Crawford Park. All three shared how they appreciate the opportunity to learn under Federico’s leadership. When not working on the grounds, they repair dry walls, wood floors, and, under the direction of a master paver, laid the stone patio outside the mansion.
Federico was raised in a family of landscapers and learned from the ground up what it means to own and operate a family business. When not working with youth as a coach and teacher, he cultivated his knowledge of landscaping on the grounds of The Osborn, an area golf club, and, at the Consumer Reports National Campus and Testing Center in Yonkers, where he became the facilities manager. During his many years there, he oversaw the 24-acre campus and tested mowers, blowers, and all kinds of equipment, developing a keen eye for what landscaping investments deliver long-term value. Now working for the Town of Rye, he has used his professional network and coaching skills to build a young staff that can maintain the park grounds with electric equipment.
When asked if battery-powered blowers are up to the task, Federico said yes for all but very large properties. Currently, municipalities seeking AGZA certification are permitted to keep one large gas-combustion tractor with blowers attached to manage certain jobs. For lawn maintenance, blowing leaves is kept to a minimum and can be done without issue. The goal is to blow leaves away from walls and fences so they can then be mulched with the electric-powered lawn mowers. Leaves are good compost for lawns, adding nitrogen directly to the soil.
What challenges remain? The primary hurdle appears to be labor, and Gold and Federico are advocating for a year-round groundskeeper for Rye Town Park. (The current park budget only covers seasonal crews, without benefits.) Rye Mayor Cohn and Deputy Mayor Emily Hurd are cautiously optimistic. Hurd noted that Rye Town Park has maintenance sheds and garages on the property where electric batteries can be stored and recharged.
Reisner, Gold, and the Friends of Rye Town Park are encouraged by the Crawford pilot and are looking to build on the park’s long list of green initiatives and achievements. The invasive phragmites have been eradicated from the pond and the cat tails are back and more beautiful than ever. A second water bottle filling station is scheduled for installation. Local volunteers have planted native gardens and are planning more. Community cleanups and planting days are quickly becoming regular volunteer opportunities at the park, with locals like Lucy Berkoff, Chris Duncan, Amy Kesavan, Sue Drouin, and Tracy Stora donating their time and talent to spread the green message.