ITHACA, N.Y. — As meetings of the City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) go, this was one of the more busy ones, if not necessarily high-profile.

The committee of Common Councilors, reduced to three voting members Wednesday night with the absences of councilors Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) and Steve Smith (D-4th), tackled a bevy of topics and votes tonight. Among the items were public hearings for the INHS Immaculate Conception School redevelopment and the Ithaca Wastewater Treatment Plant/Facility Disclosure (IAWWTP, also called IAWWTF) Ordinance, an update on the Carpenter Circle redevelopment, and several items to be considered by the full council for enactment into law, or to be circulated among city staff and officials, which is the necessary prerequisite before coming back to PEDC for a vote to send to council.

Feel free to look at the agenda here and follow along with the summaries below.

IAWWTP Disclosure Ordinance Tabled

For the few public commenters that there were, the IAWWTP Ordinance was the topic of choice. As previously reported, the intent is to notify renters and homeowners near the treatment plant of the potential hazards and inconveniences of living nearby, such as traffic, dealing with dangerous substances, odors, and so forth. Every sale and every rental agreement would be required to tell the buyer or tenant in boilerplate writing provided by the city. Led by councilor and IAWWTP Joint Sewer Committee (JSC) member Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward), the first attempt said all residences within a 1200 foot radius would be affected, which city planners and some councilors weren’t comfortable with. It also used language that councilor and committee chair Seph Murtagh called “terrifying.”

Read the disclosure notice included with Wednesday’s agenda below. The full agenda is here

Proposed Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility Disclosure Notice by Kelsey O’Connor on Scribd

The new version was limited to 1,200 feet from the plant, but only east of Route 13. This rather conveniently cuts out the many dozens of homeowners and landlords who would have otherwise been affected, but targets the Farmers Market and several waterfront-area developments, either in the works (Carpenter Park, City Harbor) or hypothetical (the NYS DOT site), and which councilor Brock has regularly, strongly opposed for including residential uses.

The latest revision created a new set of problems, in that the geographic lines don’t match up with the meteorological data.

The prevailing wind direction for the offensive odors that the disclosure ordinance seeks to inform buyers and renters about is NW-SE (and SE_NW), due to a combination of meteorological storm tracks, the lake breeze and the local topography, since the hills create a channeling effect. Most of the areas covered under the new bounds aren’t in the downstream path of the winds, and odors carried by those winds.

The public meeting had both pro-ordinance and anti-ordinance speakers for the IAWWTP. Town of Ithaca councilman and fellow IAWWTP JSC member Rich DePaolo came to the committee once again to encourage its passage, while Carpenter Park project representative Tom Lavigne spoke against it, noting the boundaries. “This demarcation has no rational underpinning.” Ithaca resident Sheryl Swink also spoke against the disclosure, calling it a “slippery slope” and noting that railroads, grade schools, Collegetown and other features could be considered nuisances in their own right.

Fall Creek resident and Ithaca Community Gardens member Marty Hiller had a different angle in her concerns with the ordinance. “The purpose of this ordinance isn’t to warn people about the inconvenience, it’s to protect the treatment plant from criticism. This is a way to sign away the voice of neighbors … and this could encourage the plant to be lax in its operations.”

Opening discussion, Brock stated that the facility is not intended to “immunize” the facility, but to “educate users.” She noted waste trucks, biosolid processing, odors, and other inconveniences and concerns, and chastised those who would downplay the importance of educating residents that the facility is nearby.

Councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th) agreed that the IAWWTP is a crucial facility, and added she lives on Fall Creek’s Willow Avenue, which has properties within the 1,200-foot radius. But she also was critical of the proposal as written. “If this is meant to immunize the facility from nuisance complaints, this would not accomplish that. I’m in full support of educating the public about the plant and its tremendous benefits to the community. But the ordinance as written doesn’t educate the public in a way that is helpful. If the intent is to educate the public, then I believe we can do so by another format that doesn’t necessarily focus on the potential and rare instances that are outlined in the ordinance.”

Councilor Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd), non-voting but in attendance, also expressed discomfort with the ordinance and the “slippery slope,” citing Route 13 as another example of a nuisance feature. “It doesn’t rise to the level where I would cite it as a priority for warning residents.”

From a legal standpoint, City Attorney Ari Lavine said the ordinance is not necessary to protect the plant or city from liability.

“If anyone grew up in this country, most people have an understanding of the negative effects or living next to a highway or a school, it’s within our general framework of experiences. But unless you’re from industrial areas, most individuals don’t have the experience of living next to an industrial site … is it legally required? No, it’s not legally required. But this seems a reasonable measure to educate those who will be immediately affected possibly by occasional nuisances before they make an investment,” Brock responded.

Mayor Svante Myrick asked if there was a less heavy-handed approach to the situation.

“I have a great deal of sympathy for the staff and for us on council if we had hundreds of people down there complaining about it and pushing for costly changes to the plant,” Myrick said. “I’m more convinced by the slippery slope argument and the focus on the negative. I wonder if we could get more out of an annual ‘hey neighbor’ letter from the plant, a mission letter to welcome people to the neighborhood, and to let them know that there may be issues and odors. We can get some of the protections we’re looking for without scaring people away.”

Donna Fleming, (D-3rd), said people should be aware of the plant, but said she cannot support the ordinance as written as it is “negative and off-putting. I don’t think we should be embarrassed or ashamed or make people scared of it.”

“Given the circumstances, I would suggest pulling the ordinance and having the Mayor meet with the board and brainstorm strategies you’d like to see going forward,” Brock said to the Myrick.

Providing a budget meeting can be rescheduled, Myrick said he’d be open to attending.

The IAWWTP disclosure ordinance was withdrawn by unanimous vote (3-0, Lewis, Fleming and Brock). By withdrawing, it may come up again at an undetermined future meeting.

Chainworks PUD Revisions and Non-Conforming Uses

The next item on the agenda was the Chainworks PUD. As regular readers might note, the zoning code was already accepted for the massive redevelopment of the former Morse Chain / Emerson Power facility and its 95 acres. But an issue turned up where the design guidelines wouldn’t be feasible for reusing some portions of the old factory (specifically, regulations with floor-to-floor heights), so the change would exempt simple renovations from the guideline – though any expansion or new building has to meet the design guidelines, and all required mitigations still have to take place before construction of any sort happens.

Discussion was limited. Non-committee member Councilor George McGonigal (D-1st) had an email from a constituent noting trucks leaving the site, which was a surprise to city staff. It was noted that might be Emerson doing remediation. Otherwise, no discussion occurred on Chain Works itself. The PUD revisions received a unanimous vote to go on to Common Council.

Also on the agenda was an alteration to non-conforming uses; a dense topic that city planner Megan Wilson managed to distill in a way that everyone can actually understand. It also shows our brief explanation last month was pretty good. To share that again:

Say for instance that you have an older two-family home out of compliance with its neighborhood, which is one-family homes only. You have a five-bedroom unit and an in-law one-bedroom apartment. You can renovate the five-bedroom or the in-law unit, but you can’t alter them to be two three-bedroom units, even though total legal occupancy would be the same. It only gets more complex from there. This has led to piecemeal renovations and discourages renovations since the building is grandfathered in with its non-compliance.

“This makes perfect sense to me,” said Fleming. “Why would anyone be against this?”

“When I think of non-conforming uses, I think that the intention over time is to bring it into conforming use, rather than allowing it to stay non-conforming,” replied Brock. “It’s to make it uncomfortable for an owner to keep it non-conforming.”

Some debate ensued about whether or not to add a clause about not increasing grandfathered occupancy, which was worked in, and then the zoning alterations were approved by committee and sent to council by unanimous vote.

TCAT buses stop at Green Street. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Inter-City Buses and Green Building Policy

Coming to item five on the PEDC’s list of items to send to council was another fairly contentious topic – Inter City Bus Service on Green Street. Since the Ithaca bus station owners retired and closed the station, the city turned to Green Street to meet regional bus service needs, starting with a six-month trial in September 2018 and another six-month extension in March 2019 (i.e. it runs out at the end of the month).

This will be delved into in greater detail in a sister story, but with some modifications to request an update on collaborative efforts with the county six months from now, and some tweaking of stated fees, the policy passed the committee unanimously and will head to full council.

Now for something that more environmental conscious readers have been waiting for a while to see – the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement Draft as part of the Green Building Policy. The Green Building Policy is an effort to update more stringent code requirements for new buildings, building additions and major renovations, such that carbon emissions are substantially reduced while emphasizing and supporting affordability in housing. The goal is to create a unified policy that is the same in city and town, and to have that codified and adopted as law by November or December. You can read more about the details in the Green Building Policy in our previous summary here.

Councilors were tasked the month with voting to circulate the supplement draft and get the ball rolling on that codification timeline. Nick Goldsmith, the city’s sustainability coordinator, was on hand to address questions, one of which had to do with non-custom home plans sold by builders.

“For someone who wants to build a house, what do they have to do that’s different now, and what kind of costs will be associated with this?” Brock asked. “Do they have to hire an architect and a consultant? Do we have a list of consultants with expertise?”

“There are two compliance paths – Easy Path and Whole Building Path. Easy Path is meant to be easy to comply with, and easy to figure out. It’s a simple checklist,” said Goldsmith. “We can also provide a worksheet for window-to-wall ratios, and walk them through calculation. I think it would be very simple compliance paperwork and could work with city staff to determine compliance. I haven’t considered a case of pre-design (like a for-sale home plan).”

Brock expressed concern with that answer. “I don’t imagine staff sitting down and see staff going through with windows … by then, you might as well hire an architect, you can’t go with a pre-design.”

“You raise an interesting question. I don’t know what packages come with those homes, if you can choose your own heat and all that. I think we should look into it. We don’t want to price single-family homeowners out of the market,” said city planning Director JoAnn Cornish.

Lewis noted that, to her pleasure, many developers have already incorporated the policy in their plans. Goldsmith stated that much is the same as previously discussed, or even more flexible than before – another path was added for the Whole Building Path for institutional structures following discussions with Cornell, which generates its own energy and needed to work out something that made sense for its campus.

The committee voted unanimously to circulate to officials and staff, and the energy code will pay a visit to PEDC again in a month.

The proposal for 510 West State Street.

West State Street Rezoning

The other item on the list of things to circulate is the much-debated rezoning of the 300, 400 and 500 Blocks of West State Street. You can read more about it here and here, but to try and sum it up, it’s an attempt to downzone the blocks in an effort to preserve local character without hurting the business owners the city wants to protect. This involves a reduction in maximum height from six floors to five, a mandatory 15-foot deep stepback after 32 feet in height, mandatory 12-foot first-floor heights and 10 feet for each floor above, maximum façade length and building footprint, and mandatory ground-level active uses. After being sent back by the full council for more review, the committee was bouncing ideas around just to see what made sense.

Unfortunately, some of the ideas from last month landed with a thud. City planners weren’t impressed by the proposal on a 60-foot façade length, which was seen as more a design review issue than zoning, and a letter from the owners of the former Bishops Hardware (now Mama Goose, Mimi’s Attic and Bishop’s Carpet One) noted they would fall out of compliance (and find it much more difficult and expensive to renovate) under the proposed zoning because of the limits on façade length and footprint.

Todd Fox, whose affordable housing proposal set off the debate, noted that the stepback from the street decrease in height from 60 feet to 52 feet is tolerable, but the maximum footprint would be a project killer. So while some of the PEDC’s ideas were accepted or tolerated, the façade length and footprint limit were not well-liked.

Brock delved into the topic first, asking if the façade length and footprint questions were about lot consolidation, or visual appearances, which she felt was more of a Design Review question for the Planning Board.

“I see a lack of opportunity for smaller business owners to be able to compete, by allowing for lot consolidation,” she said. “We are seeing the loss of economic possibilities for our businesses and residents. That would support a maximum footprint, but if it’s the façade and it’s all about appearance, that’s Design Review. If we force that onto small buildings, that just increases costs.”

Lewis said she’d be comfortable with reduced allowable height as a protective measure, and the stepback, floor heights and required first-floor active use. But she was less sure of the other proposals. “I’m not sure of the façade length or the maximum building footprint, if it’s necessary. My hope would be in not seeing monolithic buildings, but also not constructing something that requires duplication of services. I would be fine if those two items did not move forward.”

Councilor Nguyen, who had proposed those two ideas, responded that he had gone back and forth on them, and was wary of the restrictions. “The city that we love so much came out of no zoning. Legislating can have weird unintended consequences. The only thing I support is the first-floor active use. I might be in the minority on it, but I find the stepbacks very strange looking.”

“I like the West End because it is mixed business and residential,” added Brock. “I’m ambivalent about the first-floor active use. I like stepbacks … I think a third-floor stepback would better meld in. We often wax nostalgic about buildings before the ‘70s, but those were also all stick-built. People were doing it themselves by hand. Now they do it from a catalog, bring it out of the back of a truck, and with as few people as possible. The maximum building footprint makes sense to me, not so much the first-floor active use and façade length.”

“No surprise, I support reducing the allowable height,” said McGonigal. “If I had my way, we’d reduce it to what it was six years ago, four stories. Nothing’s happened (on those blocks) until now … you know, if the marriage hasn’t been consummated, it can be annulled. I think lower allowable height is a step in the right direction. I think buying several buildings to build one monolithic building is a bad thing. But (for building footprint) I would listen to staff about what makes sense for that neighborhood.”

Cornish offered that adding new requirements to the design guidelines may address the issue, but Brock was not interested. “We can make it look pretty, but I’m more worried about the economics of it.”

With only three voting members, review of the zoning changes was piecemeal. The stepback, the floor heights, the height decrease, would easily move on for circulation and comment. The active-level street use only had Lewis in favor (Brock and Fleming felt it put homes at a disadvantage), and the façade length lacked support as well. But Fleming and Brock supported a building footprint maximum of some kind, on the argument that it would prevent large buildings and bigger developers from moving in. At the last moment, at McGonigal’s suggestion and to Brock’s reluctance, an amendment was added that a building of only four floors wouldn’t need the 15-foot stepback (while five floors would). If one was looking for a simple set of zoning changes, this isn’t it.

“Well get it out there and see what the reaction is,” said Cornish.

Minor Items

At least one of the votes was quick. The Ithaca Housing Authority is seeking reimbursement funds from the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Incentive Fund (NIIF) for hosting the National Night Out block party in Northside last week. The $300 covers food and entertainment costs. This is a regular community event, and the vote was quick and unanimous – the amount was small enough (<$500) that it does not have to go on to council.

In other topics, the Carpenter update, courtesy of planner Lisa Nicholas, was brief. A neighborhood meeting to give a project update will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 27 at the citizens’ Planning Board meeting. Meanwhile, the public hearing for Immaculate Conception drew no speakers.

Brian Crandall

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