New Bill Sets Clock Ticking on Rye Country Day, City Field-Share Deal
By Tom McDermott
In 2017, Assemblyman Steve Otis shepherded a bill through the State legislatures that would allow Rye Country Day School to purchase a nine-acre NYS Thruway property across BPR from its campus. That bill specifically called for the school to make athletic fields and a track available for rental to “public recreation groups”. It further stated that any purchase was “on the condition that the City of Rye and Rye Country Day School enter into an agreement which shall provide for the shared use of such lands…”
For more than two years, in on-again, off-again talks, the school and the City failed to agree to terms for shared use. On July 24, both Rye Country Day and the City received notification that an amended bill, co-sponsored by Otis and State Senator Shelley Mayer, had passed the Senate and Assembly in June. The new bill, A8339/S6494, deletes the language requiring a shared-use agreement between Rye Country Day and the City. Instead, it contains a new covenant calling for the school to make the field and track or any recreational building that might be constructed on the parcel for rental “to public recreation groups for no less that twenty-nine percent of usable hours in the course of each calendar year.”
Why twenty-nine percent? Otis says that he based the absolute minimum shared- use time on the school’s estimated requirements earlier this year. The school expects actual shared usage to exceed that percentage.
The City decided in 2016 that it did not have the funds to buy the parcel. The school estimates that it will need to spend around $30 million for purchase, remediation, design, and construction. The Thruway Authority will not assess the property for final sale value until after all conditions for a purchase have been met. Its original 2016-2017 estimate was $7.4 million.
Otis said that he had purposely not notified Rye Country Day or the City of the new bill’s existence until official notice was given. “The bill is meant as a backup in the event that no agreement could be reached. We did not want the community to lose an opportunity for additional recreation space in favor of commercial development.” Further, Otis said that he did not want the process to interfere with negotiations. He confirmed that the bill has not yet been forwarded to the governor’s office for signature, pending progress between the school and City.
What’s holding up that progress? It comes down to 1) Control, in return for its investment and maintenance costs, Rye Country Day wants to be in charge; 2) amount of rental or free usage time available for non-school use; 3) A share agreement is in perpetuity: What happens as the popularity of certain sports come and go over the next half-century?
Andrea Sullivan, president of the school’s Board of Trustees, confirmed that the Board did not have prior knowledge of the new bill. “We sent the City Council a detailed draft proposal in March, including a master plan concept, a usage schedule with increased free use for Rye Rec, and rental rates. The City returned a redlined version of the proposal in May that included more changes than the school could abide by.” Sullivan claimed that the City’s version called for increased control. “Considering that the school was making a sizable investment and had total responsibility for developing the site, we felt it was important to maintain control while sharing.”
Subsequently, the school’s attorney, Frank McCullough, sent the City a letter explaining why it could not agree to certain changes and containing its final proposal. The letter, according to Sullivan, set September 30 as a deadline for agreement.
Mayor Josh Cohn said, “I don’t want to get into the details of the talks, but we are hopeful that we will reach a fair result. The school has been a good partner.”
Asked if he thought the new bill undermined the City’s leverage in negotiations, Cohn replied, “Yes, I thought that it undermined our leverage, but I don’t think it caused us to react.”
Otis denied that the existence of the new bill undermined the City’s negotiating leverage, “The original bill protected the community from losing out to commercial development. The new bill’s purpose is to extend that opportunity. The clock is ticking on the Authority’s patience.”
According to Sullivan, even if the new bill were signed into law, the school still needs the City as a partner, because it has control over needed zoning and traffic changes. The school and City already have sharing or rental arrangements with organizations like Rye Youth Lacrosse, would be able to increase its field time in the future. “We want the City as a partner,” Sullivan insisted.
Cohn and the City also remain interested in sharing, “We’re hopeful of having a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with Rye Country Day, and hope they want the same,” said the mayor.