DRYDEN, N.Y. — Anecdotally speaking, Varna is a favorite for, shall we say, the uninitiated but aspiring developers of the Tompkins County real estate scene. At a glance, it checks off a lot of boxes – close to Cornell University and the city of Ithaca, so it has appeal to graduate/professional students and commuters; infrastructure already in place, lower land values and prices than the city, and less onerous development review procedures.

Then they get around to proposing their project in Varna. The general advice is this – tread carefully.

Take for example 902 Dryden Road. In June 2015, developers Todd Fox and Charlie O’Connor proposed a 13-unit, 36 bed development to complement the existing duplex. Though not a large project by even Dryden’s standards, it stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition. During review, the project was whittled down by 41 percent, and eventually, eight units and 26 beds were approved; those opened last summer.

1061 Dryden Road also faced its share of opposition from Varna residents, though arguably less overall. The gist of the project remained the same from concept to approval – 36 three-bedroom units on 6.54 acres, later reduced to a smaller but similar design of 12 three-bedroom and 24 two-bedroom units, a change that was made based on market conditions. The land and the complete set of project documents are up for sale, so it’s uncertain whether it will move forward.

Occasionally, something comes along that skirts by relatively quietly. 802 Dryden Road, next to the Cornell Arboretum, is on the western edge of the hamlet. Its total compliance to zoning and relative isolation from other settled areas allowed developer Charlie O’Connor to get his 42-unit Ivy Ridge apartments plan approved with only modest changes at the town’s recommendation. Tiny Timbers also had its 15 unit for-sale home plan approved at 5 Freese Road, and which had a neutral to somewhat positive reception; it helps that it will replace a desolate patch of land once known for Mt. Varna.

This is all predicated on the Varna Community Development Plan, passed by the town in late 2012. The plan in its essence is to protect the more valuable natural areas, encourage density at Varna’s core, and enliven the hamlet into something more than a speed bump on the Dryden Road commute. The Varna Plan and the story leading up to it can be read here. The plan was in part a response to a project proposed and later discontinued by the Lucente family dubbed “Varna II”, which proposed 260 townhouses on 16.3 acres near the center of the hamlet. The work on the plan involved an unofficial or “pocket” moratorium which which was expected to last about nine months (and as bureaucracy often goes, it actually went about 21 months to when the plan was approved).

In the past five and a half years, the conversation had seemed to be settled; but then came the new Trinitas proposal.

Trinitas Ventures concept site plan for Route 366/Dryden Road and Mount Pleasant Road. Image courtesy town of Dryden.

It fits zoning, but does it “fit” Varna?

By any local measure, the Trinitas plan is enormous. The $40-$60 million plan is 224 units in 1-4 bedroom townhouses; it also includes a modest 800 square feet of commercial retail space on Route 366. That’s somewhat smaller than the old Varna II proposal’s 260 townhouses and 30,000 square feet of commercial space, which was proposed for this same 16-acre property and which Trinitas would buy from the Lucente family. However, with an expected 600-700 residents at full occupancy, it’s more than double the combined total of every other project built since the Varna Plan was approved.

It should be noted that no formal review has started, though a special use permit (SUP) application has been filed, along with some basic site plans and supporting documents. An SUP basically means enhanced review will be required, in this case because it involves multi-family buildings in Varna’s medium-density zone.

Even if still an informal concept still being hashed out, the reaction at the Varna community open house was not great. For one, the sheer size of the proposal made attendees rather uncomfortable. For two, the tenant mix drew sharp comments. Trinitas is primarily a student housing developer, though they have unsuccessfully attempted mixed-income housing (interestingly, the Ames, Iowa plan was a lot like this one, in that case 261 townhouse units; one-sixth would have been lower income “workforce housing”).

Regarding the size and looking at the zoning analysis and the Varna Plan, it largely fits the code; a few buildings would need minor lot setback variances if built like the concept, and Trinitas is looking at a 5-25% parking reduction variance, utilizing the buses and a shuttle to Cornell to help limit parking needs.

But as for the layout of townhouses and rows of parking, that makes an explicit appearance in the Varna Plan as a concept, though that was envisioned not in Varna’s core, but as a replacement to the trailer park. It states that a mix of students and other renters is okay. One could make the argument that this property was seen as more village-like and walkable “Traditional Neighborhood Development” as envisioned in the plan. But by that logic, Tiny Timbers shouldn’t have been allowed because that corner of Freese and Dryden Road was suggested as dense mixed-use development (which is actually impossible to do there because the filled land is too unstable for heavier buildings).

So townhouses are acceptable. It’s just that no one expected this much of Varna to be developable in one proposal. It’s jarring and unusual, but not illogical. The Lucentes happen to own a large, mostly vacant chunk of land right next to the heart of the hamlet. It would be like someone owning an entire block in downtown Ithaca and proposing a bunch of multi-story buildings in one project – possible in theory, but rarely seen in practice because of the size and sales needed to pull such a plan off.

Another Moratorium?

Still, the size of the concept has alarmed the Dryden planning board. At the suggestion of board member and frequent Varna development critic David Weinstein, the planning board is suggesting the town board adopt another moratorium on development in Varna, with Weinstein’s goal to reduce density, and either incentivize owner-occupied housing or limit the expansion of rental housing.

“The planning board asked for a six-month moratorium to see if the Varna Plan as written is still a good fit and if any changes are needed. This is just a recommendation from the planning board, they will need to specify if approved projects could still get underway and what properties would be affected,” said town planning director Ray Burger.

The town board is aware that Weinstein’s objectives comes with pros and cons. On the one hand, a moratorium would give time to reassess, and a mix of “carrots and sticks” at the town and county level could prioritize owner-occupied housing. However, reducing Varna’s capacity may hurt affordability by limiting available housing and driving up land values. Plus, if developers just leapfrog Varna and build sprawling developments along Route 13, there may be detrimental environmental and quality of life impacts from traffic heading through Varna to employers in Ithaca.

Trinitas has a very large and rather intimidating proposal. It comes with strengths and flaws, concerns and opportunities. There appears to be space and time to talk about an inclusionary affordable housing component, or a revised site plan design and other ideas. Development in Varna hasn’t been open-and-shut before, and a robust discussion is likely with this proposal as well.

The town of Dryden and its Varna residents know their community best, and could meet with Trinitas to  address the flaws and shortcomings they see, and if a revised project doesn’t pan out so be it. Or, with a moratorium and zoning changes to density and rental housing, they could just close the door now. We’ll see if they give the student housing developer the old college try.

Brian Crandall

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