Comprehensive Plans

Historic Amusement Park, In Dire Straits, Is Getting the Land Use "Once Over"


Opening in the summer of 1928 along the Long Island Sound waterfront of Westchester County, New York, the Rye Playland amusement park has been offering “family fun” to generations. The wooden Dragon Coaster, the pioneering Airplane Coaster, and the novel Kiddie Coaster have dazzled guests of this Coney Island-esque perma-carnival putting the City of Rye on the map. You might remember Rye Playland as the penultimate hiding place of the elusive Zoltar machine. Or where Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction takes Michael Douglas’s daughter, Ellen, on a pretty creepy and mildly threatening roller coaster ride.

Rye Playland, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is America’s only government-owned and -operated amusement park. That’s right. This socialist’s delight is located within the premier suburban county of capitalism’s main banquet hall. One can manipulate the stock market roller coaster by day, and ride a subsidized merry-go-round at night. Whee!

Well, the Park has fallen on significantly hard times, of late. Rumors of sale, re-development, re-purposing and even Donald Trump-ing have abounded. No one savior, however, seems to have an admission ticket in hand. So, in 2010, the Rye City Council appointed a Playland Strategic Planning Working Group to study and help implement a “Rye vision” that will “Reinvent Playland Park for the 21st Century.”

What does this have to do with land use, local government or litigation? Plenty! In a Report published February 9 to the City Council, the Commission recommended application of the below “principles” to whatever course is taken with respect to the property. These “principles” are undeniably, and fascinatingly, land use in species — environmental, zoning, historic landmark designation — which has us (and, we hope, you) excited. It isn’t often we get to ply our trade in the amusement park context.

1. Playland is first and foremost a public resource for the use and enjoyment of all
residents of Rye and Westchester County. Any proposed use of the Playland site
should be consistent with insuring public use of and access to open space, Long
Island Sound and facilities….

2. Any use of the Playland site must be sensitive to environmental considerations
and sustainability, including the integrity of the Edith Read Sanctuary, Playland
Lake and the waters of Long Island Sound. Playland’s fragile natural site requires
any proposed use be carefully examined for adverse impact. Sewage, solid
waste, noise and visual pollution are vital considerations as are congestion and
energy efficiency. Any future use of Playland should emphasize the improvement
of the environmental impact to the site.

3. A substantial portion of Playland has been designated a National Historic
Landmark. This is the highest level of national historic designation and reflects
Playland’s unique historical importance. While adaptive uses of existing facilities
or changes, removal or replacement of structures which are not national historic
landmarks could be considered, any of these should be consistent with the
historic heart of Playland.

4. Any proposal affecting the Playland site must be examined to insure it is both
financially responsible and sustainable. Demonstrated financial viability over the
long term is an essential criterion in evaluating any proposal….

5. Rye has a long established designated zoning policy which reflects a careful
balancing of many considerations. This policy insures the interests of affected
neighborhoods and the community at large is given appropriate consideration.
Any proposal affecting Playland should comply with existing Rye ordinances.
New structures or uses should be on a scale including height and mass and in a
style consistent with, or complimentary of, Playland’s site, neighborhood and
access.

Here’s to better, and well-planned, days ahead to an American amusement icon. As the song goes, “You can almost taste the hot dogs and french fries they sell.”

Mike Thelen is a lawyer in Womble Carlyle’s Real Estate Litigation practice group. He regularly represents a wide variety of clients in land use and land development issues, from local governments to businesses, in both state and federal venues throughout North Carolina.

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