This column was written by Brian Crandall, who runs “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.”

It’s the second of two stories looking at Tompkins County’s recently released “comprehensive plan.” Here’s the first story: “Plan predicts 3,000-6,000 jobs for Tompkins in 10 years.”

Learn how Ithaca Hummus makes its magic

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Ithaca, N.Y. — Generally, the county doesn’t play a big role in what does and doesn’t get built in its constituent villages and towns. But that doesn’t mean it has no role.

What the county could control

Building projects are required to get county input, but the county isn’t about to stop anything, nor does it have much authority to (unless you’re applying for tax breaks, like Jason Fane’s 130 E. Clinton project). Perhaps the largest point of contention at the moment is the intermunicipal NYSEG natural gas pipeline,which Lansing wants and needs to sustain its growth, but the county has issues with, saying it could upset their green energy goals.

On the opposite end of the scale was the Cayuga Ridge project for the Biggs parcel, which the county planned to sell to an affordable housing developer, but received significant blowback from the West Hill community. Cayuga Ridge was later cancelled when a site check by the developer revealed more wetlands than previously thought.

The logic of safeguarding farmland

The general theme here from a housing standpoint is to fill in the spaces within the city, villages and hamlets. There’s a strong push on the county level to keep farmland from being scooped up for new development – a major threat, considering some of the cheapest land to develop in the county happens to be far-flung agricultural properties, where a relative lack of neighbors and shoestring small town planning boards can make for a quick and easy process.

The logic is, if development takes place in communities that are already settled and already have employers and amenities, it limits the need for getting into a car for every trip, and makes for a more “sustainable” environment and stronger communities. Urban/infill development also makes for a lower tax burden per new unit added – there’s no need to pave new roads or extend utility lines.

The county is also becoming a bigger proponent of mixed-use development – apartment buildings with retail on the first floor, projects that have space for both homes and offices, and so forth. The logic is the same as before – if it’s convenient, people are more likely to walk, and patronize their own community. Trends in smaller households leads to the county’s suggestion of smaller housing units, as well as more senior housing for the greying population that chooses to “age in place”.

This all sounds great on paper, but there are many issues in practice. Anti-development sentiment, the ideal candidates for development aren’t for sale, outdated municipal zoning and so forth.

On affordable housing, county short on solutions

The county expounds the affordable housing issue, noting that 38% of renters and owners are above the “affordable” threshold, there are over 15,000 in-commuters, and very low vacancy rates creates a disincentive for slumlords to fix up their overpriced properties, which in turn makes communities less energy-efficient.

Unfortunately, the county doesn’t offer many solutions. They note an affordable housing fund paid into by itself, the colleges and the city of Ithaca, put the partnership is set to expire this year, and the future is uncertain. The other is “increasing community support for the construction of more housing units”, which is much easier said than done.

There also sections on encouraging mass transit and alternative (non-car) commuting, natural resource preservation and wetland management.

The theme is infill development in the hamlets and established areas, make the area more eco-friendly, preserving farms and green space, trying to expand affordable housing options and continue growing the economy.

All of which are great goals, but given that these interests can conflict with each other, there will likely be many debates over the next several years.


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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.