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

ITHACA, N.Y. — It was something of a shocker in the normally humdrum affairs of city meetings. With a single letter, the county had upended the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) debate.

Under New York State General Municipal Law (GML) Section 239, the county is obligated to weigh in on any projects or changes to zoning that require environmental review. The communities within its boundaries are required to refer planning, zoning and subdivisions to the county planning department, where they take a look, and decide whether or not they have any recommended changes to the proposal at hand. In Ithaca’s case, that means sharing the ADU proposal with the Tompkins County Department of Planning.

Most of the time, those too, are humdrum affairs. Most of the time, they just offer consent to proceed and say no major impacts on county resources are anticipated. Sometimes you get a reminder to not build too close to a stream if one runs through the property in question.

In this case, however, the county had substantial concerns with the city’s proposed ADU law (which you can read about here), namely, the prohibition of multiple primary structures and the 35% contiguous green space rule on a property seeking to build an ADU. Since the county identified substantive concerns, the city must either change its proposal accordingly to mitigate those concerns, or otherwise the ADU law can only be approved by a supermajority, which is 7 of 10 members of Common Council. Given councilors’ difficulties in settling on the rules as it is, a supermajority makes the law much less likely to be enacted.

Perhaps the kicker to all of this, the letter from the county arrived at 2 p.m. on the day of the meeting, four hours before it was to start. Most of the Planning Committee of Common Council didn’t even know it was coming. You can see the surprise starting at about 2:40:00 in the video recording of the meeting.

“This doesn’t happen very often,” said Committee Chair and Alderperson Seph Murtagh.

“That’s kind of irresponsible of the county to wait until the last minute…we’ve been working on this since April, they’ve known about this, they know that this would have a significant effect on our deliberations, and then they wait until we’re sitting here?” Added Alderperson Donna Fleming (D-3rd), her frustration quite evident.

It was an unpleasant surprise, to be sure. But as is what often happens in these cases, there were a series of missteps leading up to this awkward revelation.

A series of unfortunate events

County legislator Martha Robertson was less than pleased with the Voice’s description of the letter as a “curveball” and “last-minute.”

“The County provided its required-by-state-law review 11 days before it was required to, not ‘last-minute.’ City staff knew the review letter was in the works; it is completely unfair to call it a ‘curveball.’”

The Voice’s characterization was speaking to Common Council’s response to the letter, which they clearly did not expect.

According to Robertson, while GML rules allow up to 30 days to review a proposal, the proposals from the city arrived on Nov. 22, meaning there were only 19 days between when the county received the proposed zoning for ADUs and when the Planning Committee would discuss it on Dec. 11. “Along with two other projects, Carpenter Park and the Waterfront Design Guidelines, they (the County Planning Department) were sent three big things at once and told at the same time they’d be on the December 11th agenda, and Thanksgiving is in the middle, so they hurried up and did them, they did Waterfront and Carpenter a few days before, and the 239 on ADUs took a little bit longer, so that was what happened. They expedited everything.”

Asked about the timing, City of Ithaca Planning Director JoAnn Cornish acknowledged the review was on an expedited basis.

“They do have 30 days, but as city meetings go, we never have the luxury of 30 days,” said Cornish. “We work with them because they know we don’t have 30 days between all the meetings. Typically it works out.”

So that’s unfortunate event number one – this was something of a rushed process.

The second unfortunate event, which came up at the Committee meeting, is that the city and county planners had had an unrelated meeting the day before, but the changes to the ADUs were not communicated at that meeting. Robertson said it was a meeting with unrelated individuals and would not have been an appropriate venue, something Cornish disputes.

“We meet with the county on a monthly basis and we have talked about the GML at those meetings. Sometimes the county’s decision impacts what’s going on in the city. I don’t believe it would have been at all inappropriate, we sat down for more than an hour. Let’s just agree to disagree on that. This was hugely important to the city, I think they should have mentioned it,” said Cornish.

The third and final unfortunate event was dealing with the substance of the letter itself.

“(I)n an attempt to accommodate the City’s chosen schedule, the county reached out to city staff several times asking further clarifying information, and during those interactions communicated that the 239 letter on the ADU regulations would most likely include proposed changes,” said Robertson.

On this last point, Cornish did acknowledge that her staff knew there would be comments coming from the county, but they didn’t know they’d be that substantial.

“I can say that (county planner) Scott Doyle did call (city planner) Alex Phillips at about 2 PM on the day of the meeting and was asking him questions about various aspects of the ADU,” said Cornish. “But there was no indication that they were going to require a supermajority vote, that it was going to reach that level of concern. He called, Alex said there was nothing alarming about the phone call, we hadn’t heard from them right up until 2 o’clock. There’s some truth to that, but we did not realize it would rise to that level.”

So there you have it. No “deep state” conspiracies, no concerted attempts to infringe on city sovereignty, it was just a lack of communication in rushed circumstances.

What happens from here

To say that there weren’t some hard feelings after the letter was received, in the circumstances that were, would be inaccurate.

“I don’t think they understood how long we’ve been talking about this and the amount of work that the city has put into this, all kinds of analysis. We didn’t just pull this out of a hat, we’ll have been working on it for a year in January. They just didn’t understood that,” said Cornish.

In turn, Robertson sought to make clear that the county planners were doing their jobs and trying their best to work with the city.

Cornish acknowledged that getting an ADU law through, especially under a supermajority, could be a tough task.

“There has been no clear consensus (on Common Council) about any of the issues that have been brought up. The constituents are divided, so Common Council is divided,” said Cornish. “We can’t count on a supermajority, and we knew that in January, not all council members would be there at the meeting. If we’re going to go out and risk this vote when there’s so much divisiveness, we want to make sure there’s a full council there.”

But, they’re working together now to address the concerns the county raised, and trying to come up with some mutually-favorable resolutions before going back to the Planning Committee.

“I think (the meeting today) was productive. It all comes down to communication. We can pick up phones, we can ask the question, we can ask if it’s coming,” Cornish mused.”It’s not a perfect law (GML), and it’s not the work of one group of planners to oversee another group of planners, but it is the law and we live with it.”

Brian Crandall

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