By Jamie Jensen

While the town has achieved surpluses in its operating budget for two years running, deferred maintenance costs to the sea wall and the landmarked buildings are estimated to be as much as $14 million.

The Rye Town Park officially opens its summer season today. From all accounts, there are many things to celebrate this season, including a roadmap for the park’s future.

The Ocean Grill, which has replaced Seaside Johnnies as the waterfront restaurant (and concession operator) for the park, is open daily from 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Owners Al and Joe Ciuffetelli are responding to community feedback and have built a reasonably priced menu with crowd-pleasing, healthy options. Not only is the menu making folks smile, they have opened a café which features a bakery case and café tables in the restaurant vestibule. Plans are to begin serving coffee at 7 a.m. Additionally, the owners will pilot a Friday night concert series with the first scheduled for late June. As the purveyors of both the Ocean Grill and the beach concession stands, Al and his partners are hoping to add bit of fun and some culinary variety to the park goers’ experience.

Park Director Terri Fanelli and Assistant Director Bill Lawyer are finalizing the season’s programs thanks to local sponsors TD Bank, Atria Senior Living, Carpet Trends, and the Ocean Grill. Among the program highlights are the Tuesday Night Concert Series in the South Pavilion, an evening magic show and outdoor movie night for families in July, and the Lawn Chair Theatre’s staging of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” the last weekend in July. The Rye Free Reading Room will bring summer story time back to the park on Tuesday mornings. On a more permanent basis, the Rye Arts Center and Soul Ryeders are working separately on new installations for the park. Details for all the events can be found on the Rye Town Park’s new website, http://townofryeny.com/rye-town-park-and-beach.

Behind the scenes, the Commission has much to do and the publication of the NYU Capstone Report brings several critical issues into high relief. Last fall, a team of NYU Wagner Master of Urban Planning students joined with park officials to formulate recommendations for an action plan. The officials from the Town of Rye asked the team to focus their work on a guiding question <“How do we (RTP) steward and maximize access to this social good while working to protect it?”> The question captures the tension faced by the park: How do we maintain public access to this precious 62-acre property located in the heart of our community while preventing overuse? With over 1,000 respondents to the survey, more than a dozen extended interviews with community leaders, and three public forums, the NYU Capstone team had much to sift through and share.

Some of the most notable recommendations from the report include the need for active engagement of community members in assembling a vision for the park and developing a strategic plan; transparency in the day-to-day operations of the park and communications with all its stakeholders; and a strong park conservancy, like the Central Park Conservancy, that can build on the legacy of the Friends of Rye Town Park and expand to reflect the changing nature of the park’s community and its needs.

Currently, operating revenue is generated from user fees – beach permits, day passes, as well as rental fees. While the town has achieved surpluses in its operating budget for two years running, deferred maintenance costs to the sea wall and the landmarked buildings are estimated to be as much as $14 million. What taxpayers have been willing to overlook for years is now becoming an outsized problem that both the Town of Rye and the City of Rye can no longer ignore.

The park, rich in history and natural beauty, is one of the few beachfront parks on the Sound Shore that is still open to the general public. And despite recent budget surpluses, there are constraints to what can be accomplished. The fee-based revenue stream, a complicated governance process, deteriorating infrastructure, and continued overuse during the summer months pose long-term threats to the health of the park that require community vigilance and additional funding. The common refrain among local residents, “this is a park, not a parking lot,” continues to be heard loud and clear.

Last Sunday, the Rye Town Park Commission held its annual community-wide meeting under the South Pavilion. Let us hope that the Commission gives citizens many more opportunities to engage in the strategic planning process — something that needs to happen if there is to be any benefit from the work of the NYU Capstone team.