By Barrett Seaman—
The debate had gone on for over two years. One side, led by a progressive group, the Irvington Activists, has campaigned for an end to the exclusion of non-residents from the village’s 75-year-old Matthiessen Park; the other, reflecting the more conservative side of Irvington’s populace, has expressed fears that doing so would invite crowds and crime and higher costs (hence taxes) needed to protect and maintain the bucolic riverside property.
At a Public Hearing during its April 19th meeting, the Board of Trustees listened to essentially the same arguments offered since the issue was first debated in 2019 before reaching a consensus that the restriction should be lifted, even as details of managing a newly public park are yet to be resolved.
The source of the residents-only restriction is a deed drawn up in 1947 from the Matthiessen family that had gifted the waterfront land to the village, stipulating that it could not be used “for any purpose other than as a park for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the Village of Irvington.” Subsequent analysis by Village Attorney Marianne Stecich led her to the conclusion that there was no legal impediment to opening the park, which meant that the village had to decide on the merits—and morals—of limiting access to Irvingtonians.
The question was first put to a citizens Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee (RPAC), ostensibly to recommend ways in which the park could be better utilized. The village spent $1.6 million upgrading the property, rebuilding its playground and widening its paths to accommodate previously-banned bicycles—all of which bought time for the Board to consider what had become an emotionally fraught and politicized issue.
Opponents of opening the park expressed fears of large unruly crowds of outsiders, an influx of drugs, the lack of adequate parking, heightened risks for neighborhood children and ultimately the costs inherent in maintaining and policing the park at taxpayers’ expense.
Proponents argued that making Matthiessen a truly public space would bring more equity and inclusivity to the village and help dispel what they claimed was its reputation as an unwelcoming community.
Letters and emails addressed to the Board overwhelmingly favored lifting the restriction, and it was clear by the end of the nearly two-hour hearing that the mayor and four trustees were of a mind to agree, even if they had not addressed the details of how a newly public space will be managed and paid for. Decisions such as whether to charge groups a fee for holding events, what size groups should be charged and whether non-residents should be charged more than residents will be sent back to RPAC to make recommendations that the Board would then vote on in a subsequent meeting later in the spring.