LANSING, N.Y. –– A recent vote regarding a big development in Lansing has stirred some controversy.
At a Lansing Town Board meeting last week, it came to a head when some members of the public voiced concern with a recent vote by Town Supervisor Ed LaVigne, who voted to extend the construction date of the Village Solars project. LaVigne, a Republican, is currently seeking re-election, and some raised concern and said he should have abstained from the vote because the project developers – the Lucente family – had donated $8,400 to the Lansing Republican Committee a few weeks before.
However, LaVigne maintains the vote was routine and had nothing to do with any contribution, and a member of the Lucente family has called the uproar a “coordinated character assassination” of LaVigne.
Getting up to speed on the Village Solars project
The Village Solars project is an apartment complex on the 1000 block of Warren Road being built by Lifestyle Properties and the Lucente Family. It was initially approved for 174 units in 13 buildings in 2012 but has evolved to include a total of 277 units.
In 2013, the Town of Lansing approved plans for the Village Solars Planned Development Area. Planned Development Areas are different from traditional projects in that they override existing zoning regulations. For Village Solars, that means they can construct both residential buildings, alongside recreational and retail spaces.
As part of the approval, the developer, the Lucente family, agreed to construct a community center within the apartment complex, within the span of five years. The community center is meant to be a space for “self-service laundry facilities, restaurants, public and private health centers, public and private gymnasiums, business and rental offices for onsite operations or facilities and up to 20 one-bedroom and micro-unit apartments.”
In June 2017, a local law filing, approved by the town board, amended the agreement with the Lucentes, permitting a delay on construction of the community center until Dec. 31, 2020. The amendment also stipulated that until the Community Center was built, two of five existing building permits for the project would be put on hold. The other three permits were granted, allowing construction to move forward on other areas of the project outside of the community center.
On Aug. 21, LaVigne and Lansing Town Board Members Doug Dake (R) and Katrina Binkewicz (D) approved a second extension to the project, with board member Joseph Wetmore (D, G), voting against. The extension gives them an additional year to put off breaking ground on the community center, and finish other portions of the project. The two building permits are still being levied against the community center, and will not be issued until it is complete.
A large donation and its timing draws questions
It wasn’t the first extension for the project, but the fact that there was an $8,400 donation from Stephen Lucente to the Lansing Republican Committee six weeks before the vote — and the only donation made by the Lucente family to the committee in the past 10 years — made some pause. At a packed town board meeting Wednesday, local residents called for more transparency and an explanation of the donation’s timing.
LaVigne and board members made no public comment at the meeting and instead went into executive session after members of the public spoke. The Town Board has not made any public statement on the issue.
In an interview with The Ithaca Voice, LaVigne said the donation had no impact on his decision to extend the project and said he was not even aware of the donation, which went to the committee, at the time. “People don’t notify me of anything,” LaVigne said.
He said what did impact the need for an extension was a death in the Lucente family.
In March 2018, Rocco Lucente Sr. died unexpectedly. Rocco Sr. is the father of Steve Lucente –– in charge of the Village Solars project.
Rocco Sr. at the time was building an apartment complex in an adjacent lot, which, according to LaVigne, his son Steve wanted to incorporate into the Village Solars project. The new plot has plans for additional housing units, prompting the Lucente’s to shift their building plan to include a bigger and more centrally located community center to accommodate the increased perspective population.
“His father died,” LaVigne said. “He wanted to have time to acquire more land. And if he acquired more land all of Village Solars would be a much bigger project. Sadly, if his father didn’t pass away, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Official plans for the new community center have not been brought forward for approval yet. At the Aug. 21 Town Board meeting, the Village Solars Project Engineer Lawrence Fabroni told the board that plans would be drawn up following the board’s approval of the waiver.
Before voting in August, the members that voted for the amendment relied on the positive recommendation from the Lansing Planning Board. The planning board is made up of Gerald Caward, Jr., chairman; Al Fiorille – vice chairman; Norman L. Davidson; Sandra Dennis Conlon; Larry Sharpsteen; Dean Shea; and Deborah Trumbull.
Town Board member Joseph Wetmore raised concern over the timing of the Lucente’s waiver request –– asserting that the developers knew they weren’t going to break ground next year after Rocco Sr.’s death in 2018. In the Aug. 21 meeting, project engineer Fabroni told the Town Board they had entered into discussions with their bank in January of this year regarding the future of the project.
“I think some people feel the Planning Board’s recommendation is something they have to have strong reasons to go against, and I think there is validity in that,” said Wetmore, who voted against the extension. “What I found unconvincing from the applicants is why this became a last-minute emergency when they knew about it in advance.”
Steve Lucente has not responded to requests for comment about the timing of his donation.
Lavigne has remained firm that he was not swayed by the money from the Lucente’s, and in a public post on Facebook, volunteered to take the matter to the Lansing Ethics Committee.
“We have somebody that actually wants to build in Lansing that has an excellent relationship and because they donate money they think it’s inappropriate for the situation when the bottom line is we were voting on what the planning board recommended,” LaVigne said.
He believes the Lucente’s donation is supporting a positive direction for Lansing’s future.
“If somebody donates something, don’t you think it’s because they like the way things are going?” he asked. “We have worked so well with these people, they’ve added much tax base to our community which is hemorrhaging as far as tax base goes … they have poured money into the Lansing community, they’re environmentally friendly and they’re market rate.”
The Lansing Republican Committee funds all of the Republican campaigns in town, including LaVigne’s.
Tompkins County Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing), who is in charge of the Republican Committee’s fundraising, said LaVigne does not directly deal with campaign finances. “Ed doesn’t touch any of the money,” he said. “In fact, Ed doesn’t approve any of the money.”
When asked if LaVigne would have known about the donation at the time of the vote, Sigler replied, “No, he probably wouldn’t have.”
A packed town board meeting
More than 30 people were in attendance at last Wednesday’s Lansing Town Board meeting, filling rows of seats in the audience.
At the meeting, Steve’s son, Rocco Lucente Jr. who spoke on behalf of his family, said the complaints about the donation and LaVigne’s donation are part of a “coordinated character assassination.”
“This attack isn’t about the community center, not one resident of our complex has been complaining to us about the community center waiver –– not one,” he said. “This grotesque coordinated character assassination is designed to smear a member of this board and scare us away from ever participating in our community again … I call on every board member to condemn this attack, to say that it’s not true and that this sort of behavior has no place in Lansing.”
Several people spoke during privilege of the floor –– some speaking in favor on behalf of the Lucente family, and some asking for more transparency from their town officials.
Ithaca attorney Peter Salton said though he is not from Lansing, he said he was concerned enough to attend and wanted to support the Lucentes.
“I worked for the Lucentes in the 1980s, I’ve known this family and they’re nothing if not upfront. I want to congratulate the board on allowing them to build Village Solars and to have a planned development area. I think it’s a great idea. It’s a beautiful thing, it’s a win-win for the community,” Salton said.
Lansing resident Melanie Malone said she wanted to see more transparency in politics.
“From the information I’ve heard, it’s really not about Lucente personally, it’s about the ethics laws in the Town of Lansing and the laws of this state that apply to our town officials. It’s not a personal attack on anyone,” she said. “Integrity is the cornerstone of leadership. When these instances happen and there are appearances of impropriety it makes one feel like regular people in Lansing, those who work for a living, those who might be working right now, and can’t come to these meetings, those without power and influence are being sidelined as development takes place in the town.”