ITHACA, N.Y. — Wednesday was one of the city’s quieter Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting, but some feathers were ruffled anyway.

Yes, the chicken ordinance has flocked back to City Hall’s chambers, and it has city councilors clucking. The previous law was actually a two-year pilot project, and it technically expired in May though the city hasn’t turned away interested chicken owners. The city has decided that, excluding the occasional email of chickens on the loose on the Fall Creek listserve, the community benefits have been generally positive, and is moving to make the chicken law permanent which would allow for a maximum of four hens per 3,000 square feet of space.

“Everybody who has them seems to be happy with them,” said Monika Roth, an agricultural specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. “I would say to continue to go forth with the program.”

According to Ithaca City Clerk Julie Holcomb, 13 permits have been issued – 10 in 2016, two last year, and one this year, with one pending. However, plenty of people have been getting chickens without getting a permit – a $250 fine, though the city has only had complaint filed during the two-year pilot, and has never issued a fine for illegal chicken occupancy. “The police don’t want to be the chicken police, they have other things to do,” said Holcomb.

There was some discussion about whether some rules, such as the minimum square footage, were too restrictive. While councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th) raised concerns about the pilot being expired, Holcomb explained they can continue on contingency as the council debates any chicken law changes over the next couple months. More explicitly, it’s fine as long as something is being discussed for potential law, whether that be another pilot, making the current regulations permanent law, or submitting modified laws to make into permanent law. Expect this topic to come up again at a future meeting.

Also a part of last night’s discussion was a sale of a long-problematic piece of land at 402 South Cayuga Street for $30,000. As covered previously, this small plot of land just south of downtown has had more swings and misses than the New York Mets starting lineup. INHS initially planned to do four for-sale townhomes, but the project proved too expensive to fund and build. Habitat for Humanity stepped up to do four townhomes of its own, but likewise, the costs of building ended up being too much for them. A market-rate project for four townhomes was also considered, but the city, which has owned the parcel for over a decade (a tax foreclosure), would really prefer to see affordable housing at the site.

This time around, INHS has proposed to construct four townhomes as before, but these would be modular pieces instead of stick-builds, meaning that the construction costs should be marginally lower. They basically dusted off the old plans they drew up and paid for five years ago, made some design tweaks to fit commercially available modular pieces from Cayuga Country Homes, and went through planning board staff to get those tweak approved. Two of the townhomes would sell to households making at or below 80% of Area Median Income (AMI, at or below $47,200/year for a single-person and $53,920 for a couple), while the other two would sell to those making at or below 100% AMI, sometimes called “missing middle” housing.

“They’re exploring this, they’ve been hearing a lot about ‘missing middle’ housing…this is one their first efforts,” said Anisa Mendizabal. “The ones being offered at 100% will be two-bedrooms at $159(,000).” The other two units will be a two-bedroom at $121,000 and a three-bedroom at $139,000. Mendizabal added the units will be part of the Community Housing Trust. After some brief discussion making sure they were all housing trust units, the committee vote to send to the send the sales agreement to the full council passed 5-0.

For the record, in case anyone’s wondering, the transaction is legally contingent on site plan approval and a building permit. If INHS did for some reason want to switch plans, the sale would be null and void. The goal is to have the townhouse units ready for occupancy early next year.

The last substantial item on the agenda was some zoning code tweaks to the waterfront zoning passed last August. Planners added definitions for what constitutes business and professional offices, and otherwise cleaned up the code because it references old zoning code subsections that are now obsolete. Discussion was brief, with talk about setbacks, and an amendment suggested by Widget Factory owner John Fuchs in public comment to allow an apartment unit in his property.

“There were some persuasive arguments on why we shouldn’t allow residential use in that area…it may eliminate industrial uses south of Cherry Street. If we can get industrial there, we should go for them, for good, well-paying jobs,” said city Planning Director JoAnn Cornish. She mentioned Emmy’s Organics and a second unnamed potential user as current examples of growing industrial interest in the Cherry Street corridor.

“We’re not doing this for a rational policy reason, this is an individual request,” said councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd). Cynthia Brock (D-1st) stated that it felt like spot zoning, and she was strongly opposed to the change to allow housing south of Cecil Malone Drive. “I don’t want to award an individual who blatantly defies land use. That’s a horrible precedent to set.”

“I would be inclined to work something out, but I think I’m going to be outvoted on this one,” said Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd).

“I don’t think that this body is the body that should change legislation so that one person can get a certificate of compliance for an apartment,” said Brock. She suggested Fuchs ask the mayor, who can grant a one-time reprieve from that part of the zoning ordinance. In the end, the tweaks were approved to send to council, without Fuchs’ requested amendment.

Brian Crandall

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