ULYSSES, N.Y. — For several years, town officials have been planning for an overhaul of the community’s zoning code. However, according to some farmers who call the town home, the meetings and proposed changes haven’t been planned well at all, and are throwing their business and life plans into question.

Before delving into the two sides in this latest zoning debate in Tompkins County, let’s do a quick primer. Ulysses, with about 5,000 residents, has been trying to figure out what direction it wants to go from a planning perspective. As an agricultural area and as a bedroom community for Ithaca, it’s a mix of priorities and interests – you have development along Route 96 and the outskirts of Trumansburg, you have what’s left of Jacksonville after the gas spill environmental disaster in the 1970s, and you have grand lakefront homes that make even Lansing’s look modest in comparison. While the economy and the town are growing, no one would call Ulysses a boomtown – since 2010, the town has averaged ten new home construction permits per year, and has yet in this decade to grant permits for any residential building larger than a single-family home.

With that being said, there is a push to figure out where development should be, and where it shouldn’t. There are natural features to be protected like Taughannock Falls, and the town has long harbored hopes of revitalizing Jacksonville now that the gas pollution has been cleaned or naturally dissipated over the decades, and the last several years of tests show the pollution has subsided to safe levels.

In 2009, the town did its decadal Comprehensive Plan update. As these plans tend to do, it had its optimistic if somewhat vague goals – environmental protection, sustainable development, affordable and high-quality housing, encouraging commerce, and so on. In 2013, the town did an additional study, the “Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan”, which came up with ideas and approaches to ensuring Ulysses’ farms wouldn’t feel burdened with development pressure, and to encourage farm businesses. On paper, everything looks okay, the good intent is there.

With these documents approved as official guidance, the town began drawing up plans to revise zoning. In 2013, the lakeshore and conservation areas were updated. In 2015, with the help of a $40,000 grant from NYSERDA, the town had the money and interest to look at Jacksonville and agricultural areas – in effect, most of the rest of the town. That effort was spearheaded by what’s called the “Zoning Update Steering Committee”, ZUSC for short. They brought in an outside planning firm, Ithaca’s Randall + West, and starting holding meetings to get public input and hash out changes to the zoning. The zoning drafts were finally released at the end of November.

It is during these ZUSC sessions that the debate begins, and the product of those meetings, the zoning drafts, that are fueling today’s consternation and concern.

Image property of Stick and Stone Farm

A step too far to preserve rural character?

Chaw Chang and his family own the Stick and Stone Farm on Trumansburg Road, and have farmed in the town for fourteen years. The manage about 100 acres, and grow organic vegetables on about 35 of those, leaving the rest in a natural state. He also sits on the town’s Ag Committee, which formed in Spring 2016. To say Chang is frustrated with the ZUSC is an understatement.

“We’ve been sending a lot of input to the ZUSC. We feel ignored and misconstrued, we’ve sent a number of memos, some of which received no response,” says Chang.

Members of the Ag Committee were alarmed by the November draft zoning. Among other things, it significant curtails farmers’ ability to subdivide their land, and places additional restrictions on the appearance of their buildings and the layout of their farms. The regulatory side was also tightened, so there are more situations with which they will need to seek and obtain special permits for operations.

“We have provided comments, substantial comments, included those from the state Department of Agriculture and markets that they {the state} found it {the new code} unreasonable for agriculture, and in conflict with the “right to farm” law. They have largely ignored those comments from the state as well as from us. These are the folks that decide whether the town zoning is reasonable or not.”

The subdivision law would be changed like this – right now, as long as the lot dimension requirements are met, a large property can subdivide as many two-acre lots as the owner wishes. What the proposed drafts do, is only allow a new two-acre lot to be cleaved off for every 15 acres. A single new lot can’t be more than four acres either. So if you own 30 acres, you can only create up to two new lots of 2-4 acres. You can’t subdivide any more after that, not even if the property sells to someone else. The draft also says no more flag lots, and reduces the size of buildings permitted. Signage for farms and farm stands would also be more limited in size and location. The only loosening of laws in the draft is that required road frontage was decreased for new lots, and building front yard setbacks were reduced to encourage homes closer to the road.

Ulysses zoning maps. Existing map (top), and proposed changes (bottom).

Also, take a look at the maps – they did away with rural residential zoning, in favor of the more strict agricultural zoning in most areas, including many farms with road frontage.

On the one hand, by introducing much stronger limitations on what property owners can do with their parcels, this definitely helps stymie encroaching home development from Ithaca and Trumansburg, and prevent rural home development on what the town sees as prime agricultural land. On the other hand, if a farmer needed a financial boost after a bad year, or wanted to give some land to their children to build a home, their options just got a lot more limited.

Chang was emphatic in stating his belief that the zoning hurts farmers more than it helps. “The development restrictions that they are putting on land, the farmers and private landowners I’ve talked to are very concerned and see this a punitive measure that takes the value and the potential value of their land away without any compensation. We’ve commented for two years about this and received very little response.”

“Ultimately, I feel like there are many members of that committee that wanted development rights restrictions before the {NYSERDA} grant was even written, and they went ahead and did it without any land use study. On top of that, we {the Ag Committee} feel that the town’s agriculture and farmland protection plan has been picked through for what they want, and ignore everything else. The ag plan says to form an ag committee. But they went ahead, applied for a grant, supposedly to protect ag, form a committee, hire consultants, and then six months after that, form a committee. That is not the way the ag plan should have been carried out.

For my personal farm, the biggest detriment would be increasing design standards. We have a vegetable farm. We don’t do retail, but we’re looking at it. The sign ordinance for where we are would be really restrictive for that. I have four children. This will impact our decisions and out children’s decisions whether or not we can keep them here on the farm. Retiring farmers, this will impact their derived income from land. I know one who is no longer healthy enough to farm, he has no retirement, his money is in his land…{t}his is something he’s very upset about. He’s late in his life, he wants to take care of his wife, this impacts that. Other farmers up there in age are getting concerned as well.”

One of the simmering points of contention has been that the ZUSC has no farmers or private businesspeople on it. Two members are professional town planners. There’s also a town board member, a member of the former comprehensive plan committee, and the town supervisor, Elizabeth Thomas. There is no voice for farmers on the board, and Chang claims they were indifferent to the Ag Committee’s concerns.

The end product is that the official Ag Committee statement is scathing in its critique of the zoning draft. “We further believe that such a farmland preservation technique will have a chilling effect on the current pattern of increased farmland ownership by farmers. Few farmers will purchase land in town with such drastic farmland preservation techniques placed on it….At a certain point much of this land will likely become abandoned.”

So, here’s the summary – the town is trying to preserve good farming soils, the farms themselves and rural character. But, the farmers have responded that the restrictions do more harm than good, hurting their farms’ bottom lines and creating onerous regulations in the effort to protect them – “killing with kindness”, perhaps.

Just trying to follow the plan

Town Planner Darby Kiley has worked for the town since 2011. As planner, she has intimate familiarity with the Comprehensive Plan and all the plans and studies that have followed. She is also a member of the ZUSC, and insists that there’s no intent to hurt the farmers of Ulysses, and that the town is open to new homes in appropriate areas – what she describes as Jacksonville, Trumansburg and along Route 96/Trumansburg Road, where most of the water line runs.

“The plans want to discourage development in agricultural areas, so the zoning puts a limit on how many times a lot can be subdivided. Even though it hasn’t been a threat to agricultural practices, that’s not to say that it won’t be, there are only so many small lots that can be subdivided off. But we do want to encourage more development in Jacksonville, on our water line, which would benefit the town, and everybody,” said Kiley.

The 2009 Comprehensive Plan discourages rural home sites as a matter of sustainability and utilizing existing infrastructure more efficiently. Kiley points that out, and says these agricultural and rural zone changes have been in the works for a while. “We’re just trying to follow what the comprehensive plan guides us to do, this eight, nine years old plan, and we have yet to do everything in it.”

“We didn’t want to see farmland go down from 100-acre parcels to 10-acre lots. I see the comp plan and the ag protection plan, we’re trying to protect farmland. Subdivision review is encouraged by the ag plan. Lot size and road frontage should be limited…We don’t want development to get ahead of us. That’s what we’re trying to get a handle on. We’re blessed with great ag soils, we want to protect those, we don’t want it chopped up for residential areas. We want it {home development} closer to 96 and the water.”

As part of the interview, Chang’s concerns about the sign ordinance were raised. “We really ratcheted the sign sizes down. We’re trying to make it easier, it was not handy, it was a very difficult thing for me to use a zoning officer. 12 square-feet to 9 square-feet per every 400 feet of road frontage? We want people to comment on why they would want a bigger sign, I’d be happy to receive a comment.”

Kiley paused for a long time when the issue of ZUSC membership and concerns of a lack of adequate input were brought up. She conceded there have been concerns over input, but explained that the ZUSC was trying to balance the concerns of multiple boards and committees.  “We have had…there have been some structural changes to meetings. We had privilege of the floor, we have…a bunch of different committees, and the larger community, we’re trying to do outreach. We did the first draft in February and sent it to all boards and committees, asking for feedback by May, we reviewed those in May and June, we had a joint meeting of all boards looking at it together. The ZUSC is trying to make a compromise – the Ag Committee wants this thing, sustainability wants this. The ZUSC has to try and figure out a middle ground. We try to come up with ideas that will satisfy everyone, but will probably never satisfy everyone.”

Three days after the interview, Kiley emailed to say the public comment period was being extended an additional two weeks – what was set to end on January 11th, was pushed back to January 25th. Whether that is related to the interview question isn’t clear.

A good plan of action?

So here we are. The zoning will receive comments through January 25th, and the ZUSC will consider the comments and potential changes before sending the draft to the town board for review and a public meeting later in 2018.

Chang isn’t hopeful about the new code. He sees the chances of major changes as being “quite low”. He would like the code scrapped and the process started anew, with farmers represented on a new ZUSC. That’s a hard thing for the town board to swallow and the committee to swallow, I get that. I think the process was flawed to begin with. They need to start over with proper stakeholder representation.”

Kiley respectfully disagrees, and looks forward to implementing new code. “One of the short-term goals is to update the zoning map to match the comp plan, we’re not there yet. I’d like to continue on the path forward to make that happen. The comp plan had a good response, hundreds of people. This is the opinion of the people, this is what they’re looking for.”

Brian Crandall

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