ITHACA, N.Y. — At the Tompkins County Government Operations Committee on Tuesday, the county Planning Department will be seeking permission to put the Biggs property up for the sale on the open real estate market.

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The tax-exempt 25.52 acre parcel was the subject of controversy in 2012 when the county announced the intent to sell the land for $500,000 (the assessed value was $340,000) to affordable housing developer NRP Properties of Cleveland in partnership with Better Housing for Tompkins County (BHTC), who proposed a $13.5 million, 58-unit townhome project called “Cayuga Ridge Village”.

The project was designed as rentals to low and middle-income households, and was to be a recipient of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant for Climate Showcase Communities, a program that promotes EcoVillage-style development.

However, the project received strenuous opposition from neighbors, who formed the Indian Creek Neighborhood Association (ICNA) to combat the project. Residents cited concerns about sprawl, traffic congestion, and concerns that affordable housing would bring more crime into their neighborhood.

The county had initially planned to sell the land without preforming an full environmental site assessment, and the ICNA sued. When a judge sided with residents, the county had to rework their plan to sell, and NRP had to submit the project for environmental review. After a close 4-3 vote, the town of Ithaca’s planning board agreed to be lead agency for the environmental site assessment. The debate was on whether they should do it, or the county, given the size and ownership of the project.

When the full environmental review was conducted, the wetlands on site were much larger than anticipated, and developing wetlands is an extremely complicated and expensive process – they usually have to be replaced in order to get permission to build. Most developers, affordable or otherwise, will not touch wetlands because of the permissions process and high costs (this recently was an issue in Lansing because an undeveloped site being marketed for office space was found to be wetlands). As a result, NRP and BHTC pulled out of the project in September 2014.

The ICNA maintains that the land should be retained by the county as tax-exempt “public woodland”, while the county planning department has contended the land has little public use, and would prefer to sell the land to a private owner and return it to the tax rolls. The county planning department would also prefer the land be sold in one piece, without further subdivision.

What’s changed in the past couple of years is that the town of Ithaca has a new Comprehensive Plan in place. The new plan calls for “semi-rural neighborhoods” on the site, which recommends about 1.5 housing units per acre (it may be higher if near employment centers or units are clustered), and 50% lot coverage or less.

If the property is allowed to be put up for sale, there is no guarantee there would be a buyer – Cayuga Medical Center and BHTC (now merged with INHS) have shied away from the property. But there would be the potential for anyone to purchase the property and do what they want with it.

The final question is, whether that’s a good thing, or a bad thing.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.