This story has been updated.
WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- The City of Rye’s lawsuit against Westchester over management and operational changes at the county-owned Playland Amusement Park was thrown out by a state judge on Monday.
Supreme Court Judge Gretchen Walsh ruled in county government’s favor and dismissed Rye’s petition that challenged Westchester’s standing as the lead agency for projects at the county-owned park under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).
Rye Mayor Joseph Sack said he was disappointed but glad the city challenged the county's long-term lease agreement with Standard Amusements.
"We gave it our best shot, but we didn’t prevail," Sack told Daily Voice. "While we disagree with the decision, it may not be in our best interest to pursue a costly and time-consuming appeal, with an uncertain outcome."
“We’re very pleased,” said Ned McCormack, a spokesman for County Executive Rob Astorino. “The definitive nature of the ruling shows that the county complied with the law and had the best interests of the residents in mind and now it’s time to move forward.”
Judge Walsh ruled that Westchester County can move forward with its plans to revitalize Playland, an historic 280-acre amusement park. Walsh rejected all the claims by the City of Rye that have halted most of Standard Amusements' $60 million in promised restoration projects.
Westchester County Legislator Catherine Park, D-Rye, was equally baffled by the city's costly lawsuit, saying, "This litigation was an attempt to usurp the County and was a massive waste of taxpayer money. Unfortunately for the taxpayers of Rye, they had to pay for both ends: Rye’s filing and the County’s response."
In a press statement, Astorino said: “This ruling means the county can get back to the business of saving Playland. The legal challenge has been brought, the court has rejected it, and now it is time to refocus on the important work ahead – revitalizing the park and placing it on a firm financial foundation for the future.”
Nicholas Singer, a co-founder of Standard Amusements who grew up in Harrison just a few miles from the park, said: “Playland is an integral part of the fabric of Westchester County, and our goal from the start has been to ensure Playland continues to entertain the community for generations to come. We are pleased with this ruling as (we can now) move forward on our plans to upgrade the grounds in support of our mission.”
Westchester Board of Legislators Chairman Michael Kaplowitz, D-Somers, said: "The results of this lawsuit demonstrate that it is far better to negotiate than to litigate. As always, the Board of Legislators will work with the City of Rye to make sure that Playland continues to be a good neighbor and a source of great enjoyment for decades to come."
Last May, Astorino, Standard Amusements and the Board of Legislators reached agreement on a plan to pump more than $60 million into Playland: nearly $30 million from Standard Amusements, which carries with it the right to operate the park for 30 years, and $30 million from the county to pay for 11 capital projects on the property of which the county will still retain ownership.
Progress came to a standstill last summer when the City of Rye filed an Article 78 court proceeding, claiming that the county’s agreement with Standard Amusements violated SEQRA. Rye’s case revolved around the assertion that it should have been granted "lead agency" status on any improvements by virtue of the fact that the park is located within city borders.
Judge Walsh wrote: “Playland Park has been in continuous operation, serving the interests of the citizens of Westchester County and other visitors since 1928 – i.e., 14 years before the City came into existence,” Judge Walsh wrote. “Petitioners have not identified any state law pursuant to which the City has express authority to permit, approve or regulate the [County] Board’s use of Playland Park, much less any of the projects contemplated in the 2016 Restated Agreement.”
Playland is set to reopen on May 13 for its 89th season under county operation. The court decision paves the way for Standard Amusements to take over operations for the 2018 season.
Legislator Parker added: “While it is true that a hallmark of the Astorino Administration is a lack of communication, what occurred in this instance was a complete lack of cooperation from the City of Rye. Throughout this process, Westchester County offered the City a seat at the table for their city planner, city engineer, and elected officials. These measures were not good enough for Rye, so the Mayor felt the need to enter into completely avoidable litigation."
Standard Amusement’s $30 million investment will go toward revitalizing Playland with new rides and attractions, as well as upgrading food choices, picnic areas and restaurants while renovating grounds and Art Deco buildings.
“Evident through the Court’s ruling, the law regarding lead agency status is clear. While the land may be in Rye, the property has been and is still the County’s. This interpretation of lead agency status for Playland has never been called into question before by the City and this quick case dismissal shows why," Parker said. "This lawsuit resulted as a block on needed repairs and improvements to the park. Among these stalled projects includes a needed fire suppression system that to this day is uncompleted.
The management agreement calls for Standard Amusements to pay the county $2,250,000 and invest $27,750,000 of its money within five years into refurbishing the park; and make annual payments to the county starting at $300,000 and escalating by 2 percent annually. Once Standard Amusements has recouped its initial investment, the county is required to participate in a sliding-scale profit-sharing agreement.
In return, Standard Amusements will have a management agreement with the county to run the park for 30 years. For its part, the county has agreed to fund 11 capital projects to rehabilitate the infrastructure at Playland, costing about $30 million, including rides, gaming and concession improvements, as well as shoreline rehabilitation.
“With Playland’s opening day roughly six weeks away, I hope the City of Rye’s actions do not impede the start of a yearly Westchester tradition that so many of our neighbors enjoy," Parker added.