Seaside Johnnies in Rye Town Park remains tax-exempt despite efforts by the Board of Assessment Review of the City of Rye to revoke its status.
Seaside Johnnies in Rye Town Park remains tax-exempt despite efforts by the Board of Assessment Review of the City of Rye to revoke its status.
After a two-year legal battle, the New York State Supreme Court for Westchester has ruled in favor of the Town of Rye and the Rye Town Park Commission. Oddly enough, the case was against the assessor and Board of Assessment Review of the City of Rye and the city is one of the municipalities that make up the park commission.

The entity in question was Seaside Johnnies, a restaurant in Rye Town Park, which is a property of the Town, the Villages of Port Chester and Rye Brook and the City of Rye. In 2011, after more than 100 years of tax-exempt status, the city's assessor, an independent actor, revoked the exemption, put the park back on the tax rolls and started collecting taxes on it.

"I think it was just poor judgment on the part of the assessor," said Town Attorney Paul Noto, who added that it was not a good example of inter-municipal cooperation.

Seaside Johnnies in Rye Town Park remains tax-exempt despite efforts by the Board of Assessment Review of the City of Rye to revoke its status.

The Rye City assessor argued that Seaside Johnnies operates "no differently than any other restaurant within the city," according to the court papers filed by the Town. Noto countered that there are many public venues that have private concessions that are not taxed.

Furthermore, State Supreme Court Justice Bruce Tolbert ruled in favor of the Town because the court determined that the restaurant was part of the park experience and that the commission is highly involved in its operation.

"The Rye Town Park

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Commission has control over its menu, its uniforms, its pricing. It is only open when the park is open," Noto said. "It serves a public purpose by providing an amenity for park goers."

There was also 100 years of precedent, Noto added, and it is harder to take away an exemption than to grant a new one.

The park was created in 1907 to be operated by a commission representing the town, Port Chester and the then-Village of Rye-Rye Brook did not yet exist. Currently Rye Mayor Doug French and Rye City Council member Laura Brett, formerly Councilor Joseph Sack, represent the city on the park commission.

"While it might appear there was a conflict of interest, they didn't vote in a way that was problematic," said Rye Town Supervisor Joe Carvin. Both the mayor and council members agreed to recuse themselves from any votes on the matter.

Rye Town Park is not the only entity the assessor's office has reviewed. In 2010, a 15-year legal battle resulted in the appellate court agreeing that the senior-living center in Rye, the Osborn Home, should lose its tax-exempt status. French supported the assessment board's decision to pursue that case because some business models have changed.

"I felt that the assessor did her job as far as the Osborn Home," French said. "Once that was resolved, the city assessor looked at other properties, one of them being Rye Town Park."

The Town requested that the Board of Assessment Review reinstate the tax exemption but was denied. It was at that point the town decided to pursue legal action.

This French did not support.

"I advised the council as such, but they had decided they wanted to go ahead with the lawsuit," he said.

If the City won, they would have had to pay a portion of the taxes on the restaurant, something French finds counterintuitive. He would have preferred the city council and assessment board had settled the matter with the Town without involving the courts.

"I think people expect their governments to work together and not be in court and have a judge decide something," he said. Rather than completely revoking the tax exemption, the elected officials could have discussed other possible solutions such as the police staffing the city has to provide, which has increased and adversely affects the city.

Instead the court ordered the assessor's office to restore the exemption and refund the money the town had paid, about $22,000, with interest. Although the city council could appeal, French hopes they will not choose to do so.

"I would be opposed to spending any more money on an appeal and hope my colleagues would do the same," the mayor said.

As of July 17, the Rye City Council had not yet met to discuss filing an appeal.