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Wainwright House Faces a New Set of Challenges

AT-wainwrightNobody ever said that doing good would always be easy. Wainwright House, a dedicated spiritual and learning center overlooking Rye Harbor, has, in recent years, found that to be true. While many residents describe Wainwright as one of the organizations that make Rye unique, the longtime Rye institution is now dealing with a series of daunting challenges.

Nobody ever said that doing good would always be easy. Wainwright House, a dedicated spiritual and learning center overlooking Rye Harbor, has, in recent years, found that to be true. While many residents describe Wainwright as one of the organizations that make Rye unique, the longtime Rye institution is now dealing with a series of daunting challenges.


The idyllic estate near several private beach and yacht clubs on Stuyvesant Avenue has been a Rye landmark since 1931 and home to the Wainwright House organization since 1951. Although many in Rye know it only through attending weddings or meetings, the organization serves a wide and varied audience with a range of spiritual, self-help, and educational programs.

 

Wainwright House is actually a non-denominational institution with a mission to “offer a sacred place and community for spiritual exploration, health and healing, and planetary responsibility.”  Its programs include everything from yoga classes to seminars for parents of children with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism. It has provided support groups for war veterans and prayer groups for world peace. As a non-denominational group it welcomes adherents of all religions, hoping to provide opportunities for people of all faiths to work together for spiritual growth and understanding. According to the new Executive Director, Hillary Jones, more than 1,000 individuals participate in its programs each year.

 

AT-wainwrightChallenges to the organization’s mission have come from multiple directions.  According to Board President Carol Craig, the biggest issue is financial. “When Fonrose Wainwright Condict donated the mansion, built by her parents, she also provided a substantial endowment to support ongoing operations,” Ms. Craig said. “However, the very high costs of maintaining the facility, which includes two additional buildings plus the main house, coupled with regular program expenses, ultimately depleted the endowment.”  

 

Two additional problems came as a direct result of the first challenge. To supplement the fees charged to program participants and the donations of supporters, Wainwright actively promotes the mansion as a site for weddings and other events. According to Ms. Craig, up to 30 weddings, usually in tents on the expansive lawns, have been held each year, providing an ongoing and essential revenue stream.   

 

Unfortunately, weddings mean noise and congestion and Wainwright’s neighbors objected. As a result, Rye’s Planning Commission directed the organization to significantly cut back on the number of tented weddings with amplified music that could be held – limiting the organization to 12 per year, beginning in 2012. Ms. Jones says the resulting decline in revenue will significantly impact Wainwright’s ability to meet its goals.  

 

The ‘compromise’ enacted by the Planning Commission has not satisfied the objecting neighbors who contend that any use of the tented facility for amplified parties and weddings violates a series of laws and regulations. They have filed suit against both the Planning Commission and Wainwright House, claiming that the existing, 4,600 square-foot tent erected behind the main mansion is a commercial usage. This, they state, is banned by zoning regulations, and is not, as Wainwright argues, a religious activity. They further charge that the noise generated by the weddings is a nuisance to the neighbors.


The suit was filed with the New York Supreme Court and is awaiting a decision. If the suit is successful, it’s possible that Wainwright could be prohibited from holding any weddings where noise could be an issue.

 

Both Ms. Jones and Ms. Craig say that Wainwright wants to work with its neighbors and has tried to minimize noise and other impacts. They indicated that, for this year at least, there has been a minimum of complaints to the City of excess noise.

 

Adding to the challenge, the wedding income has also now attracted another interested party – the City of Rye. Recently, Rye Assessor Noreen Whitty announced that the longstanding tax exemption enjoyed by Wainwright would be revoked.  She claims that the substantial income generated by weddings at Wainwright essentially makes it a commercial operation, which subjects it to regular property taxes. If Ms. Whitty’s decision is upheld, Wainwright would face a tax bill of almost $34,000 for this year. Wainwright is contesting the determination before the Rye Tax Assessment Board and a decision is expected this fall.

 

Mayor Doug French did not comment on the merits of the Assessors’ proposal (the Assessor works independently of the City Council). He did note, however, that the current process of reevaluating tax decisions on an objective basis is a good thing and an example of how the City government is working effectively.

 

Ms. Jones says that Wainwright is working hard to deal with each of its challenges.  They are looking at other sources of funding to make up some of the shortfall from the diminished endowment and the loss of some or, potentially, all wedding income. This could include promoting more corporate and institutional giving, seeking grants from educational and community service organizations, and asking for individual donations. For the last several years Wainwright has offered space to other non-profit groups, such as the Rye Y, which holds its yoga classes there.

 

“The goal of Wainwright is to serve the community and to promote positive change,” emphasized Ms. Craig. “We reflect the spiritual and cultural diversity that now characterizes America, and hope to be able to continue to offer Wainwright House as a place where everyone in the area can enjoy the beautiful scenery and take advantage of our multitude of programs.”

 

By Walt Mardis

 


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