A garage to one-bedroom apartment conversion at 201 West Clinton Street.

It was a busy evening and packed house at the city of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee Wednesday night. The committee was there to review things big and small, from sculptural Tompkins Giants to detailing in waterfront building design guidance. However, those hoping for some action on ADUs were left disappointed when a last-minute letter from the Tompkins County Planning Department and late concerns from Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services waylaid plans to move the ADU ordinance forward.

Carpenter Park and the “Sword of Damocles”

As always, for those who want to follow along, the agenda is here.

The two public hearings on Wednesday night’s agenda have been frequent visitors to the PEDC in the past several months – Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), and the mixed-use project Cayuga Medical Center and Park Grove Realty have in the Carpenter Business Park, between Northside and the waterfront.

Nearly all of the speakers in the packed chambers were there to speak on ADUs, though Carpenter was scheduled to go up before the committee first.

The Carpenter project is mostly good to go, but the developers were seeking to change some of the wording in the Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning, which is the do-it-yourself zoning that they proposed and the city needs to approve.

The city and the development team are trying to craft language regarding what to do if they can’t get state funding for the affordable housing component of the project. The developers are proposing that, if after several proven and earnest attempts, they have not secured the funding, they can go before the Common Council and present other options for consideration. The language the city proposed is a bit tougher, and according to city planner Jennifer Kusznir, the city attorney felt it offered a little more protection to the city because affordable housing is stated in the PUD as a community benefit. It requires PUD renegotiation if attempts at funding are unsuccessful, with a “providing alternative benefits or payment in lieu of benefits” clause.

The one speaker for the Carpenter Park hearing, Theresa Alt, chastised the development team for their proposed language, comparing it to failing an exam several times and asking to be passed for trying. Alt’s a regular at these meetings and fair in calling balls and strikes, so her words have weight.

“After working with the developer most of this week on the grant being submitted for this funding, and going through it with the folks in Albany…they’re in good standing to obtain the funding. I do think there is value in that they have to come back to Common Council should this funding not go in a reasonable time, we’ve waited as long as three years with INHS. But they do have to come back, one way or the other, whichever language we choose,” said city Planning Director JoAnn Cornish. “What we’ve heard from Albany is that there has to be really strong support from the city for the project to be eligible for the (affordable housing) funding.”

The Carpenter Park site lies between Rt. 13, 3rd Street and railroad tracks.

“The goal was to come up with language that the city attorney and the applicants could agree to, but it came up short on time,” said Committee Chair Seph Murtagh. Project consultant Tom Lavigne explained that the application, now in its second try for competitive affordable housing funds, went before the state on Wednesday afternoon, and unlike last time, where there were three Ithaca projects for the state to choose from, this time around they’re the only one.

LaVigne said the concern was that the city’s language was penalizing, and may suggest the support isn’t there that the state wants to see. “We will try as hard as we can do it, but we feel like this language will penalize this. We feel it won’t be our fault if we cannot produce the affordable housing. We’ve spent $200,000 already, we’re not going to walk away.”

“One of the key community benefits is the affordable housing. If you don’t receive that HCR money, and there is a possibility you would not receive it, then I think we do have to look once more at the PUD application,” said councilor Laura Lewis.

“We’re okay with that, just not with the penalties that might come with it. The ‘providing alternative benefits or payment in lieu of benefits,’ are penalties. It feels like that should be left to a developer with more erratic commitments,” said LaVigne.

It was a bit combative at the start, particularly an exchange between Lavigne and councilor Cynthia Brock, but the mood improved with some assistance from project consultant Yamila Fournier, who, along with councilor Murtagh, served to be more explanatory and conciliatory on their perspectives. Fournier explained that it was fine to ask for alternative benefits or a payment or other renegotiation in the event grant funding isn’t obtained, but it was a verbal “Sword of Damocles” that sends a bad signal to the state and implies distrust.

Councilor Murtagh explained that he was fine moving the proposed, gentler but still substantively-similar language from the development team forward with the project, pending consultation with city planners and the city attorney.

The council voted 4-1 to accept the proposed rewording and 4-1 to move the PUD zoning forward to the full Common Council, with councilor Brock opposed in both votes. It will need site plan approval from the city Planning Board later this month before the PUD can be approved by the council.

ADU ordinance delayed with last-minute opposition

Let’s start off with a quick primer. The ADU ordinance affects areas zoned for one-family and two-family homes. A draft ordinance has now been circulated, and Planning Board (the citizen board that reviews projects) has had a chance to comment. Also provided was a petition from South Hill residents who demand an owner-occupancy requirement for the properties within their neighborhood as defined by the zoning overlay placed into effect in 2017.

Graphic courtesy of the City of Ithaca.

Here’s the spark notes version of months of work and hours upon hours of meetings.

In the zoning code for the one-family and two-family zones (R-1, R-2, CR-1, CR-2), ADUs come in three flavors – attached (basement, in-law unit), detached (second building) or outbuilding conversion (like a garage into an apartment). If there are exterior changes to the property then the ADU must go through a site plan review.

One ADU is allowed per lot. If attached, the maximum size is one-third of the house’s livable square footage. If detached, it’s 75% of the square footage of the main house or 800 square feet, whichever is less. It does need to have a parking space. They can be in back yards and side yards but not front yards (and corner lots are considered to have two front yards). They have to be 10 feet from the lot lines and 5 feet from the main house. They must have 35% contiguous green space. Outbuilding conversions (garages, workshops) with no increase in footprint are exempt from the ADU lot and setback rules because the buildings already exist. All new structures have to look architecturally similar (same roof pitch and overall architectural style to the main house).

In terms of occupancy, they may have a family (by blood or civil partnership) plus one unrelated person, or just one unrelated person, which will deter student renters. Owner-occupancy depends on the zoning, chart for reference below. Owner-occupancy is desirable, but it’s also a substantial extra workload on city staff to visit homes and check on their residents to ensure compliance.

Is this going to please everyone? No. The city planners did their open house to see what people wanted and didn’t want. Somewhere between “do not allow” and “build baby build” they came up with this as the reasonable, if rather complicated, compromise.

The public hearing for the ADU ordinance went on for about two hours and had approximately thirty speakers. Most of those who stepped up to the microphone were in favor of the ADU ordinance on principle. However, there were two big areas of debate among the speakers: owner-occupancy requirements (both for stricter and for looser regulations), and the 35% contiguous green space requirement.

County planner David West, speaking as a private citizen, pointed out that the green space requirement would prohibit many homeowners in the city from having ADUs because of the smaller lot sizes in older neighborhoods. Several students from Ithaca’s increasingly visible Sunrise Movement also spoke in favor of ADUs as an affordability measure, and expressed concern with the 35% green space because lawns are often maintained in sustainable ways and provide poor habitat space. In contrast, former councilor Don Hoffman stated the ADU ordinance was an anti-affordability and anti-green measure because it encouraged development of open space and would raise property assessments.

However, the big news of the night was the last-minute letter from the Tompkins County Planning Department. New York State General Municipal Law (GML) Section 239 gives the county say in project review and new zoning. Typically, they’re humdrum affairs, signing off on whatever the town or city in its boundaries has hashed out, or offering only minor tweaks.

But not this time. The county objected to the green space requirement and the prohibition on multiple primary structures. If the city moved forward with the rules as written to date against the county’s advisement, they would now need a supermajority – 7 of 10 councilors – to enact the law.

The mood from the councilors was that of shock and frustration. Planning Director Cornish has said they had had a meeting with the county on Tuesday and it had not come up then, so this really did appear to be a last-minute action.

At first, councilors tried to move forward with discussion of the ADUs, but then came news of a late letter from Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, expressing concern that the multiple primary structure rule would force them to discontinue a townhouse project that they’re planning somewhere in the city that’s still in its early stages.

Now it looked like the laws as proposed could explicitly stop an affordable housing project.

Between those two factors, the PEDC reluctantly postponed further discussion of ADUs until next month, so a meeting could be had with the county.

The big art sculptures and the finer details of waterfront building design

Other action items on the agenda include the Waterfront Design Guidelines (you can find a copy here) for new buildings, which isn’t really throwing any curveballs with its push towards walkable mixed-use with visually interesting appearance. The discussion on this item was unsurprisingly short and to the point. The PEDC spent only a few minutes on it given the number of other items on the agenda, and voted to send to the full Common Council 4-1 with Brock opposed because she wanted more time for review and discuss.

The waterfront “Tompkins Giant” sculpture and the Baker Park “Anthropocene” sculpture.

Next on the agenda were a pair of art sculptures, one on the Waterfront across the inlet from the Farmer’s Market, the other proposed for Baker Park. Ithaca is a community that likes to voice its opinion and art is no exception. That said, the comments with regards to these two proposals were anywhere from lukewarm to blisteringly opposed.

The council debated the merits of the proposals, noting concerns with insurance liability with the Anthropocene structure, and whether or not the sculptures were appropriate for their proposed locations. The Committee voted 3-2 on each proposal to move them forward to the full Common Council for approval, with Brock and councilor Donna Fleming opposed

The Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Community Gardens

The next item was a throwback – another attempt at applying a IAWWTP Disclosure Ordinance.

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 Alderperson and IAWWTP Joint Sewer Committee (JSC) member Cynthia Brock, the first attempt said all residences within a 1200 foot radius would be affected, which city planners and some other members of council weren’t comfortable with. It also used language that councilor and committee chair Seph Murtagh called “terrifying.”

The revised version introduced in August was limited to 1,200 feet from the plant, but only east of Route 13. This rather conveniently cut 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.

That revision created a new set of problems, in that the geographic lines didn’t match up with the meteorological data regarding how odors travel from the site. Members of the public were critical of the proposal due to “slippery slope” nuisance arguments and accusations Brock was trying to give the plant immunity from being a responsible neighbor, and other councilors thought it heavy-handed, so the proposal was tabled, which allowed it to potentially come back like it did last night.

This latest version has taken the “warning zone” to be a 375-foot radius out from the property lines of the IAWWTP, which is just short enough to not include existing homeowners, but does affect City Harbor, the NYS DOT site, the Carpenter Park project, the Farmer’s Market, the Sciencenter and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s offices. As designed, any sale, rental, or lease of space would require the disclosure be given to any lessee, renter or buyer. Also, the “terrifying” language is much more subdued this time around.

“It doesn’t protect, what it does is educate, so that they’re cognizant that there may be situations associated with the plant,” said Brock.

“I will say, though, that if you buy a house near an airport, you don’t have to sign a disclosure ordinance,” noted Cornish.

Moving quickly, the committee decided to at least circulate the proposal to city staff and boards 4-1, with councilor Steve Smith opposed.

A late addition to the meeting was a few minor changes Project Growing Hope (the Ithaca Community Gardens) sought. The memo didn’t make it into the agenda so there wasn’t much time to review beforehand.

“Currently in our zoning, we have the definition of community gardens, however, we’re now putting our community gardens as a primary use in the PUD. We realized it’s time to have two definitions, for neighborhood gardens, which are not primary use, and community gardens, which are meant to be their own primary use on a parcel,” said planner Kusznir. In other words, if you had a vacant lot and wanted to put a garden on it, it could only be allowed by special permit from the planning board. This zoning change creates a definition for smaller neighborhood gardens, and then allows the Ithaca Community Gardens to be an allowed primary use without the special permit and the hassle that may create.

The vote to circulate for discussion was carried unanimously 5-0.

Brian Crandall

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