What Would Edith Do?
By Suzanne Clary
Though it is the smallest city in Westchester County, Rye has historically been, and continues to be, one of the biggest leaders in forward and sustainable thinking. That identity is due in large part to the legacy of Rye’s greatest conservationist, Edith Gwynne Read (1904-2006). She was tenacious when it came to protecting our ecosystems and wetlands; she blazed trails that led to the adoption of progressive, green initiatives at both the governmental and nonprofit level.
How did she accomplish so much? Edith served on the Rye City Council. Encouraged by her husband Bayard (a wildlife photographer and filmmaker for the National Audubon Society), Edith also chaired Rye’s City Conservation Commission as well as the Water Resources Committee of the Rye League of Women Voters. She understood that stewardship comes with challenges but also opportunities. One of those opportunities is before the City of Rye now, as a growing number of citizens and historic and environmental organizations have rallied to protect Rye Nursery’s riparian character and preserve this parkland on Milton Road as a natural grass area.
This unique parcel, with its mixed wildlife habitat and recreational field for youth sports, falls within the public trust. Over the last year, community stakeholders have asked the City Council to ensure that any future actions taken will respect the intent of the original municipal purchase to protect our water, our ecosystem, and green recreation space for future generations. This is a not a new concept or expectation. In 1991, Rye expended thousands of hours creating a visionary Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan (LWRP). This plan, as well as a 1991 Wetlands and Watercourses Code, stands as testament to Rye’s pro-active, self-directed commitment to safeguard the natural character, health, and beauty of the City of Rye.
“It is the intent of the City of Rye that the preservation, enhancement and utilization of the natural and man-made resources of the unique coastal area of the city take place in a coordinated and comprehensive manner to ensure a proper balance between natural resources and the need to accommodate population growth and economic development. Accordingly, this chapter is intended to achieve such a balance, permitting beneficial use of the coastal resources while preventing loss of living estuarine resources and wildlife; diminution of open space areas or public access to the waterfront; erosion of the shoreline; impairment of scenic beauty; losses due to flooding, erosion and sedimentation; or permanent adverse changes to the ecological systems.”
In 1975, Edith Read predicted that the City would pass tighter ordinances governing construction on flood plains but added that enforcement would continue to be a problem. She agreed with Paul Sternberg, then chairman of the Planning Advisory Commission, that there would be “…more citizen interest and demand for a say in decisions in the coming years. People will be called on to make value judgments,” Sternberg said. “They will increasingly learn to identify what they value and realize that some things are not immediately measurable in terms of dollars and cents. They will learn that the environment in which they live has an effect on their well-being.” And so, the LWRP as well as Rye’s own wetlands code were created to show what Rye truly valued.
This April 19th, hundreds will gather for Earth Day 2020 on the Town Green. It will be a watershed moment to show what we value. School environmental clubs and non-profits like the Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary, Rye Nature Center (with its Edith Read Welcome Center), Federated Conservationists of Westchester, the Jay Heritage Center, and Save the Sound are planning a huge celebration of what our small coastal city has accomplished in the last five decades. The LWRP is one of those milestones. So too was Rye’s adoption of a Sustainability Plan in 2013 and its renewed pledge as a municipality to “Preserving Rye’s open spaces” and accepting its “special responsibility to protect its waterways, wetlands and water bodies.”
Edith Read fought for conservation efforts at the county and national level. “People don’t think about how they destroy the environment,” she said. “With polluted air and water there cannot be a healthy community.” But she was most proud that her hometown’s advocacy had impact outside its boundaries. “Rye was the leader for all this,” referencing her work to establish Westchester as a soil and conservation district which in turn laid the foundation for Rye’s Flood Mitigation Plan and federal funding to address flooding.
Earth Day will be a momentous occasion to celebrate Rye as a model for other municipalities and to celebrate Edith, our most tireless enviro-citizen. But our combined voices and message are meaningless if the City marks this occasion by choosing to install artificial, unrecyclable turf in an environmentally, historically and culturally significant park like Rye Nursery.
As we plan for spring flowers and showers, we can’t help but remember Edith’s perennial advocacy. What would Edith do? I believe she would encourage the City of Rye to continue its leadership role and preserve its legacy when it comes to conserving our most fragile spaces.
<The writer is a 27-year resident of Rye and President of the Jay Heritage Center.>