ITHACA, N.Y. — One of Tompkins County’s largest planning conundrums carries on. The county planning staff recently held a meeting with town of Ithaca staff and residents to hash out ideas for the future of the Biggs parcel on West Hill, across the road from Cayuga Medical Center.

At the meeting, the county presented a few conceptual ideas that it considered desirable. One consisted of two four-story apartment buildings on 2.5 acres with 15-20 units each, modeled after the TREE apartments at Ecovillage. A second called for a solar array over the non-wetlands areas. The third suggested a land swap with an interested neighbor to turn over the development rights and enable the neighbor to build clusters of small homes for seniors south of the Biggs property, up to 50 units. The plans have been presented as mutually exclusive – either one, or two, or three, but not combinations of the three.

The Biggs parcel, now officially referred to as the “Harris B. Dates property” at Cayuga Medical Center’s insistence, had been on the real estate market for a year. However, there were no takers. As a result, the property was pulled from the market and the county is reviewing its options.

“We didn’t have a lot of interest, one or two were interested in perhaps a piece of it, but not the whole property. We’re not going to subdivide it prior to sale. It might need to be marketed more aggressively,” said county planning commissioner Ed Marx.

The Indian Creek Neighborhood Association was in attendance at the meeting, and is pressing once again to make the property a nature preserve. The neighborhood interest group cited multiple reasons in their argument opposing development of housing or solar panels –  potential traffic, potential flooding, unwelcome population growth on West Hill, isolation from the city and changing the area’s “semi-rural character”. The group has asked the county to declare the land a “Unique Natural Area” to encourage broad conservation protections, but the county has declined, saying the land’s environmental value is comparably limited.

The problem with the nature preserve plan has boiled down to concerns over taxes and ownership. Proposals to preserve the land often dovetailed with plans to keep it in the public domain or donate it to a land trust, measures that would render the 25.52 acre property tax-exempt. The county has been clear that, preservation or not, it wants the property on the tax rolls. The housing and solar proposals are an attempt to proverbially hit two birds with one stone.

“The county’s interested in seeing multiple benefits achieved, we’re interested in seeing more housing developed in appropriate locations, and since there’s water and sewer infrastructure there, it has potential. Using it for renewable energy purposes also fits in with county goals. We recognize there’s a trade-off with neighbors with wildlife and trees, and we’re sensitive to that, which is why we’re floating ideas to get reactions,” said Marx.

So what’s next? Well, the relevant county committees will be briefed about questions and comments from the meeting. But beyond that, everything’s up in the air.

“We really haven’t chosen a course to pursue at this point,” said Marx. “All the options have pros and cons, they all have question marks to address before moving forward. We’re at an early exploratory stage, I’d say.”

Brian Crandall

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