Rhinebeck rec park expansion gets a move-on

After months of back-and-forth between Rhinebeck officials and residents, the first phase of improvements to the Thompson-Mazzarella recreation park just got its first green light.

At a special meeting Oct. 21, the Rhinebeck Town Board set out to amend the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) negative declaration on phase one, which was made in 2009 when the rec park master plan was adopted.

The plan came up for review a year ago but had remained in a discussion phase among the town board, town and village planning boards and the recreation park committee while public comments were considered after a December 2012 hearing.
At that time, residents had submitted a 250-signature petition calling for more playing fields.

The master plan, designed by the engineering firm Weston and Sampson, includes one soccer field, a great lawn that could also serve as a playing field, two new baseball fields, several walking trails, a pavilion, a community center, and a skate park, all carved out of about 17 of the 84 acres that are owned by the town and held in a conservation easement by Winnakee Land Trust. The current rec park, located behind the Starr Library on W. Market St/Route 308, has one baseball field, a tennis court, a basketball court, a volleyball pit, a playground, a pool complex, and a community garden. There are also 31.5 acres that will remain in hay production, as they have been for decades.

The phase one improvements focus on infrastructure and include the excavation for roads, water lines, electrical conduits and wiring, a handicapped accessible pavilion, and a septic system for the pavilion restrooms. According to strategy outlined in the master plan, the infrastructure projects need to be completed before playing fields and other amenities are added.

Funding for the various phases has also affected the construction schedule since the master plan was adopted. A $100,000 Community Development Block Grant the town received from the county is specifically for a handicapped-accessible pavilion and has to be used within a certain time frame, but before the pavilion can be built, a septic field, access roads, electric, and water are needed.

One major change in the plan is that the new pavilion will have an on-site septic system instead of using the village’s sewage system. The system will be positioned away from the wetlands, archeologically sensitive areas and other areas of concern, according to Town Planner Art Brod.

For this reason, Brod recommended to the town board during its environmental review that the 2009 SEQR determination be amended to reflect the change, and to note that a review and test of the septic plan was performed by the project engineer under county health department supervision.

Sally Mazzarella, a member of the park planning committee and the president of Winnakee Land Trust, told the board the septic system change will save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

After discussion, the town board members agreed that the changes since 2009 were consistent with the original SEQR determination that found no environmental impacts.

Before they voted, however, Councilwoman Elizabeth Spinzia asked the town and land use attorneys present to assure the board that further changes could be made to the plan after phase one is completed. Her request was in response to residents’ concerns at public hearings on the project that this was the last chance to add more sports fields to the plans. “If a [town] board wanted to amend this and put in more fields, we could do that at a later date, in the future?” she asked.

The attorneys confirmed that that was correct. “I see this as an evolving plan that will evolve over a period of years and will respond to what the community needs as those needs change and develop,” Town Attorney Warren Replansky said.
The town board then unanimously voted to amend the SEQR negative declaration, which wrapped up the environmental review process for phase one.

Rhinebeck Soccer League president Jacob Hutchings told The Observer after the meeting that he was pleased with the outcome. The league had sent the planners a letter, as part of the planning board’s public hearing, offering to help develop the park with volunteers and fundraising while urging the board to continue to assess the needs of the community in future park plans.

“It’s been made very clear that without phase one going through, it’s very difficult for anything to happen in that park,” Hutchings said, adding that Spinzia’s question about additional fields at a future date had satisfied his organization’s concerns for the time being.

One week later, at its regular meeting on Oct. 28, the town board approved $30,000 to secure Crawford and Associates Engineering for the construction of the pavilion.

Before that vote took place, resident and parent Linda Murray spoke during the public comment section to point out a possible conflict-of-interest.

In past meetings, Murray, who is secretary of the Rhinebeck Soccer League, has expressed concern that open space considerations, such as those embraced by Winnakee, have trumped the public’s requests for more sports fields, particularly for soccer.

This time, she said that Councilman Joe Gelb’s membership on the Winnakee board should have voided the vote on the SEQR determination Oct. 21 and that Gelb should have recused himself from all votes on the project.

The board accepted her comments but did not respond with any conclusive statement.

After Murray spoke, Gelb recused himself from the vote on the engineering fees, saying, “I will consider the suggestion that was made. I do feel a little bit trapped…I think it’s important that people not get in a position where somebody can question the propriety of them sitting on an issue where they may have a personal involvement…For this reason, until I have a chance to look at this, I will not vote.”

He added that in his work as a Winnakee board member, he has never been involved in discussions about the rec park or its easement.

A day after the town board meeting, the town and village planning boards held another joint public hearing on the plan. Opinions from all sides were expressed, from those who wanted more sports fields to those pleased with the plan and the diversity of amenities.

One sentiment repeated by several people who support more sports fields was the “last chance” concern for adding sports fields to the plans, despite the town attorney’s reassurance the day before that more fields could indeed be added at a later date.

Linda Murray again addressed the board on the topic. “Any changes require Winnakee’s approval. If we can’t get the park committee and Winnakee to agree [to add more fields] right now, when they have all of the facts, what makes any of us think this is going to happen in the future?” she said.

The town and village purchased the property in 2002, with partial funding from the county’s farmland protection program, and afterward the property was put into an easement held by Winnakee. The arrangement means that Winnakee has approval power over any improvements on the property.

At the Oct. 21 town board meeting, Mazzarella affirmed that Winnakee would potentially permit modifications to the plan as long as they fit within the terms of the easement.

At the public hearing the next day, Mazzarella replied to Murray’s question by saying, “It’s very upsetting for me to hear about Winnakee Land Trust in a way that is extremely negative. I don’t think anyone here, including myself, has the ability to say what decision Winnakee Land Trust would make if the town presented to them a plan that would be modified from what we are looking at today.”

The town and village planning boards have now closed the public hearings for phase one and will move on to site plan review and permitting.

Town officials have said that the rest of the plan will be worked on as funds become available after phase one is complete.

Both town board meetings, as well the planning board hearings on Sept. 17 and Oct. 22 ,are available online for viewing, on PANDA 23 and on a YouTube channel created by Fred Cartier.

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