The Irvington Village Board has agreed to open Matthiessen Park to the general public, probably beginning in early 2021. The move lifts a “village residents only” restriction that was in effect for more than 40 years. Entry was enforced sporadically over that time.
Opponents of this restriction pointed out that excluding nonresidents from village-owned parks was inappropriate for a village that wanted to appear “welcoming.”
There was also a legal argument. Until last year it was believed that a “residents only” covenant was in the deed by which former owner Ralph Matthiessen gifted his property to the Village. Further research showed this not to be the case.
Mayor Brian Smith announced at the village board’s Nov. 16 meeting that all five trustees had come to a consensus on opening Matthiessen Park during a Nov. 12 work session. “We’re looking at how other parks have managed it,” he explained, stressing that they needed to figure out how much a changed reopening policy would cost so they could include that expense in next year’s budget discussions.
During the meeting, which was held on Zoom, letters in favor of opening the park were read into the record, and eight residents called in to express support. In addition, Smith reported receiving a group letter with 186 signatures asking for an end to the residents-only policy.
Smith explained that with the renovation of Matthiessen Park and then the pandemic, discussions of park admission policies had been ”back-burnered.”
“I think we’re bringing it to the front burner now, as we see what the board wants to do as a group and if we want to do something for 2021, which is right around the corner. We have to kind of figure out any kind of budgetary implications, so the time is right to have this kind of discussion.”
Smith stated that he had never seen Matthiessen Park crowded and that if it were open to all, “I think the park can handle it.” He said that opening the park wasn’t, for him, a question of “righting a wrong,” but rather a necessary step toward correctly interpreting the intent of the Matthiessen deed.
Smith expects to see an uptick in park attendance because of the improved amenities, including new playground equipment and splash pad. “I do think that even with a large increase in residential use, we still have plenty of room, and we can share that park.” He added that although he might be getting “ahead of himself,” he’d even like to see additional amenities at the park, such as a stage and a dog park.
Deputy Mayor Connie Kehoe said. “I’ve felt for a long time that there’s an important message to send people that grow up here, people that visit here or people that work here, that this is a welcoming community.”
Kehoe added that when the issue was discussed last winter, there was talk of having an interim period when non-village residents who lived within the Irvington School District could be admitted. But she felt the Village could handle increased usage in Matthiessen Park, based on their pandemic-era success handling increased usage at the village’s other waterfront park, Scenic Hudson. Scenic Hudson has always been open to the public due to a provision in its deed as gift from the nonprofit organization Scenic Hudson.
Village Trustee Janice Silverberg favored the change in policy, but cautioned: “I think we have to balance how to be as open and welcoming as possible, and not creating a situation where it’s so crowded on weekends that the taxpayers who pay for it — the taxpayers who just footed the bill for the refurbishment of this park — are limited in their access, and are not able to reserve the park for their get-togethers. Or they’re not able to use the barbecue pits.”
Trustee Mark Gilliland favored moving ahead, saying, “I don’t think there should be limits in the beginning except when we have to think of resource management.”
“I think larger groups have to remain ‘permitted’ ahead of time, otherwise there’s a big issue of public safety,” he explained. “So if we’re opening up the park in the spring, we certainly have a period to see how the usage looks as it ramps up.”
The board concluded that they should look into online permitting for resources such as picnic tables, barbecues, and large gatherings, and confer with other villages that have similar facilities.
Village Administrator Larry Schopfer said the Village operates an online reservations system for the tennis courts at Memorial Park on Dows Lane. “There’s no fees involved,” he said. “It’s working very well and it’s adaptable to other uses, like to reserve a picnic table in Matthiessen Park. I think the idea is those limited resources probably do need to be managed, and part of what you should be looking at when you look at other parks [elsewhere] is not just what’s working, but what’s not working. I don’t think the technology problem is going to be an issue — you have to set the policy.”
It’s now up to the board to determine how the use of scarce park resources would be managed and enforced under an open admissions policy, and how this might translate into increased costs for the Village.