ITHACA, N.Y. — It was a longer meeting than expected last night for the City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee. As has often been the case over the past year, the discussion of Accessory Dwelling Units drove much of the impassioned debate, clocking in at about 2.5 hours of the 4-hour meeting. For those who like to read along to your play-by-plays, the agenda is here.
Community Gardens get a zoning revision
Not everything was a hot debate last night. A special order of business tonight was a Public Hearing on the “Community Gardens Zoning Amendment.” This is a minor cleanup to the zoning code to allow neighborhood gardens as a property use, which are smaller temporary gardens within a neighborhood like what you might put on the vacant half of a double lot or the Cornell Cooperative Extension garden on Floral Avenue, and community gardens, which allows for land to be permanently used as garden space and contain structures pertinent to garden use, like storage and maintenance sheds. This came about during the Carpenter Park review, because the land to be deeded to Project Growing Hope (the Ithaca Community Gardens) wouldn’t have met the existing definition. It would have been a permanent use as a garden, and that had the potential to create legal issues, hence the zoning code cleanup.
The amendment had to be voted on at this month’s meeting so that it could be sent to the full Common Council next month and be approved into law. There were only a few public hearing speakers, all in support of the community gardens. Marty Hiller spoke on behalf of PGH and said they were pleased with change, saying it would help with achieving a more sustainable local food system.
The votes to declare lead agency for review and issue a negative declaration (any detrimental effects are properly mitigated) passed quickly. Discussion on the zoning change itself was brief. Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) asked for some clarifications on the type of structures allowed (the structure size and scale is bound by zoning for that parcel). The vote for the amendment passed unanimously 5-0.
The next item on the list was fairly simple and standard. In projects where Common Council is an involved agency, they agree at the start of every year to let the city Planning Board handle the environmental review. This typically happens with Planned Unit Developments like the Immaculate Conception School redevelopment – the Council debates the PUD in concept and the zoning itself, but the environmental review is handled by the Planning Board, just as it would any other major project. Common Council can still provide input to the Planning Board, but leaving the environmental stuff to them makes the process more efficient. This passed unanimously without any substantial debate.
Multiple primary structures the primary concern of the ADU discussion
Last on the voting item list was yet another visit for the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance.
After the county’s curveball last month, the letter received this month (on the 14th, so the city had had it for a few days this time around) stated that the county has three recommendations, and the city must accept one of them in order to avoid an objection from the county under General Municipal Law, which would trigger the need for a supermajority vote on what has already been a contentious review process.
The three recommendations from the county focused on different approaches to revising the multiple primary structures prohibition. One was to eliminate the rule prohibiting multiple primary structures. The second, if the first was too difficult to swallow, was to establish additional primary structures by special permit with specific guidelines to direct Planning Board review; or, since the city said they wanted to create laws to permit pocket neighborhoods, enact an explicit moratorium on permits for more than one primary structure, because that way, if the city refuses to act in the specific timeline of the moratorium or tries to extend it without a good reason, the county could launch a lawsuit. While not as hardline as an outright prohibition, in any of these three cases, the regulation is more stringent than the current code, which allows multiple primary structures as-of-right (a Special Permit allows the Planning Board to reject a plan, as-of-right doesn’t).
Also since the last meeting, the greenspace requirement was further explained, as shown in the new diagram above, mainly to describe how the 35% minimum contiguous greenspace requirement would be calculated. City Planner Jennifer Kusznir said the county was satisfied with this and removed their recommendation for modification from their second letter. As written going into the meeting, CR-1/R-1 and CR-2/R-2 don’t allow multiple primary structures, but they also don’t have a homeowner occupancy requirement.
The general public comment period had its usual share of pro-ADU and anti-ADU speakers. A sizable number were in favor of ownership requirements, some were opposed. Some, like frequent PEDC attendee Tom Shelley, talked about the need for greenspace requirements. Much of the debate here boils down to the dilemma that different neighborhoods have different issues; what West Hill wants might not be what Fall Creek wants, and South Hill’s issues aren’t the same as Northside’s.
Regarding the county’s recommendations, Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) supported the Special Permit option. Brock advocated for the moratorium option, to which Murtagh responded that he sees the Special Permit option as a short-term solution while they work towards a long-term solution. Councilors Laura Lewis (D-5th) and Steve Smith (D-4th) also said they were in favor of the Special Permit option. Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd) expressed frustration that the city seemed to be regulating ADUs harder than multiple primary structures.
“We’ve been having this debate for almost a year now, and we haven’t seen that many multiple primary structures built in the city…we’re not aware of many developers doing this, INHS is looking at (doing) one. My concern is that if we do a moratorium, we halt these projects…I’m personally okay with moving this forward, we’ve done a lot of work on this. There’s a diversity of viewpoints on this. We’ve tried to come to a compromise. We’ve limited the number of ADUs, capping them to one per lot, we’re limiting the size of ADUs to 800 square feet, and we’re capping occupancy limits and that will limit the number of people who can live in the ADU. We’re trying to control the development to try and make it more compatible. We’re making a balance, I believe the compromise we’re making is a good one,” said Murtagh.
“Nothing we’ve circulated has had multiple primaries with a Special Permit….to vote it on to Council with circulation to comment, I think is inappropriate,” responded Brock.
“Because it would be responding to the GML request, we wouldn’t have to recirculate, because we’re responding to the county,” replied planner Kusznir.
The debate between Special Permit vs. moratorium was extensive and at times combative. “I don’t know if anyone is being persuaded on either side and we have other items to discuss, so I’d like to call a motion on this,” said councilor Smith after about twenty minutes. Murtagh called the vote and the motion to change the proposal to allow multiple primary structures with a Special Permit passed 3-2, with Brock and Fleming opposed.
The next topic was similarly contentious, and something of a procedural fumble. It started when councilor Brock had expressed frustration because the size limit on ADUs contiguous with the house was removed, and said that it was new information from December to now. City Planner Alex Phillips explained that because the committee had concerns that the original limit, one-third of the existing home’s square footage, punished one-story homes seeking basement ADUs, it was removed.
Currently, if you’re seeking to do an accessory dwelling unit within the contiguous walls of your house, for maybe the conversion of an attached garage or an in-law apartment, the maximum is one-third the house size. If your house is 1500 square feet, the maximum size of the unit is 500 square feet. The new proposal would allow bigger interior units as long as it blended into the home, like the fully finished basement unit example.
“So we’re calling a two-family a one-family home because it looks like one!?” Brock exclaimed after a laugh of apparent disbelief.
In response, councilor Smith expressed his own irritation. “We’re just trying to make room in our community for those who have been systemically excluded for decades. I’ve been quiet to this point, but it’s clear to me this conversation has not been helpful.”
“There are a lot of people who work in the city and struggle to find affordable rental housing. Not all ADUs will be affordable, but some of them will be because they’re smaller spaces, and it allows people to live in the city who might not be able to afford to otherwise,” Murtagh added.
“I don’t believe this addition was something that was voted on at the last meeting. This language has not been circulated or voted on,” Brock stated.
“The only change we made from December was to add new diagrams,” planner Kusznir reiterated.
Upon further discussion and checking of notes, it seemed that Brock was correct – it was discussed, but planners thought there had been a motion when there wasn’t. (To be honest, I cover these meetings every month and have no record of a motion in my notes.) As a result, councilor Smith brought the motion for a vote, to remove the maximum one-third of a house’s square footage. The motion to remove passed 3-2, with Brock and Fleming opposed.
“I think this is a substantive change, I do not support it, I see the value in single-family housing…this effectively eliminates single-family housing,” said Brock.
The next motion, to add a homeowner occupancy requirement, was much like the homeowner occupancy debates from previous meetings, and no one seemed likely to change their stance after months of hardening. Brock made an impassioned speech that Ithaca was going to be more expensive than its neighbors because of its status as a regional economic driver, and that not having mandatory home occupancy for ADUs would simply allow people to buy homes, build an ADU and rent them out while increasing the value of the property beyond affordable levels.
But for other members, the issue was with those who simply can’t afford homes to begin with. “For me, it seems the owner-occupancy requirement is about trying to control the type of person that lives in the neighborhood. It has a discriminatory feel to it, and that’s why I’m challenged to accept it,” said Murtagh.
The vote for mandatory homeowner occupancy failed 2-3, with Murtagh, Lewis and Smith opposed.
The motion to send to the full council passed 3-2, with Brock and Fleming opposed.
“I can’t support the ordinance without the owner-occupancy requirement,” said Fleming.
No doubt the February Common Council meeting will be as contentious as last night’s committee meeting.
City mulls tree removal regulations for residential property
On the announcements side, the PEDC quickly noted that the city should have about $965,000 in HUD funds this year, and invites applicants for submissions to use those funds to advance the city’s goals (applications due February 28th, more info on Pages 3-4 here). The final draft of the Green Building Policy is set to be brought to the city and town in the April-May time frame now that the 250 or so comments have been addressed and once the legalese is hashed out.
City forester Jeanne Grace provided a summary from the Shade Tree Advisory Group looking at the potential for an ordinance to regulate if and when residential homeowners can remove “regulated” trees from their property (it depends on species, location and size, noted in pages 7-9 here). The city currently has an ordinance regarding removal from public property, but not private property. Council members liked it “in spirit”, but as Alderperson Donna Fleming (D-3rd) noted, there was discomfort among alderpeople with pushing this much control over private property and the potential paperwork/enforcement involved.
Councilor Brock, who represents a more suburban, forested neighborhood, feared “neighbor vs. neighbor” battles and that it would punish both small homeowners and those with large acreages. The council encouraged forester Grace to do more research and speak with tree removal companies and other municipalities with ordinances before making any moves.