ITHACA, N.Y. — Call it a “long incubation.” After years of delays and challenges, New Earth Living’s Sue Cosentini is finally launching her 30-home Amabel “pocket neighborhood”.

The project calls for 30 for-sale homes in the town of Ithaca’s Inlet Valley corridor at 619 Five Mile Drive. However, a lot has changed since plans were first shared with the Voice in December 2015. 4.5 years is a long time, and it’s been a time-consuming process, something Cosentini readily acknowledges when asked about the holdup. Some of it was beyond her control, and some of it was changes in her own thinking.

“The long incubation period has multiple causes. One of those is that I live on the site in the old farmhouse, and after living there for a little bit, I discovered how amazing the light is there. The first iterations had the houses in little groups, and their backs would be to the sun, and I couldn’t stand the idea of some of the front porches not experiencing it. I rearranged the houses and that set me back quite a bit with redoing the pre-development work. That was a self-inflicted wound, but I felt it was necessary in order to allow every house to really enjoy the location. Now those houses and the common courtyard will have that exposure.”

Many of the other issues were less whimsical. Among them: Amabel had to buy land from the city as the property straddles the city and town, but the purchase was halted for several months as the city of Ithaca dealt with a lawsuit unrelated to the project, freezing all land transfers until a lien release was granted. The company that was to have supplied the modular home components went out of business, and it was another several months until a new modular unit supplier could be located and brought on board.

Also, infrastructure installation, like power, water and stormwater facilities, takes time — in some cases, a lot of time. Perhaps the biggest issue was that the Town of Ithaca wasn’t willing to take the sewer system because it’s inverted. The land is lower than the connection by the road, and it has to be pumped up to the town’s sewer line. For that, a legal entity was set up purely to own and maintain the on-site sewer system. “The houses will have a gravity system to the pump which will lift it back to the road. That entire system was brand new for everyone – engineering, planning, town board. No one had done one of those (here), like ever. So getting that passed was a task, that was a year and a half.”

“This is quite the bootstrap operation. I’m still running my construction company (Cosentini Construction). I don’t have a big financial partner in this and I’ve been funding it out of pocket. Getting a subdivision isn’t like the 1950s where the municipalities help. It’s a huge amount of cost,” said Cosentini.

But finally, the perseverance has paid off. Cosentini is ready to start building homes for customers. At a time where the local economy has been hard hit by the economic fallout related to the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the world. Some folks just can’t catch a break.

So far however, Tompkins County’s home sales market has actually held up quite well, according to deed filings and the county tax assessor’s office. Part of that’s likely because the area has had a significant deficit of for-sale housing for years, especially in neighborhoods in Ithaca or the adjacent communities. COVID may yet change that, especially if the colleges don’t reopen in the fall and put many more people out of work, but for now, the market’s lack of for-sale housing persists.

Asked if she’s nervous about trying to market Amabel’s homes in this COVID-stricken era, Cosentini is more worried about the bigger picture than she is about her plans. “For sure, COVID terrifies me generally. I am concerned that it puts a pall on the interest. But these houses are further apart than in Fall Creek. It’s like any neighborhood when maintaining social distancing. There’s no common house, so the most that anybody would be engaging with would be in the garden, which is huge and it’s outside. The community space will also hold tools, kayaks and bikes, a fire pit and a pavilion. There’s much less of a risk outside, so that’s not as much of a concern.”

“On the other hand, people that might be shut in, this could help facilitate neighbors helping each other out, by shopping or taking care of pets. This supports an ethos of food security and social support, allowing for a quality of life even if you have to stay at home more. People can still rely on each other. With neighbors nearby, it offers a certain level of safety and security.”

One of the most noticeable changes from the plans is the change in home designs. Part of that was due to the change in modular suppliers, part of that was because people complained the original designs were too modern and unattractive (something my email inbox can attest to). But mostly, the change is because Cosentini is moving from an individual array to a Community Solar Array (CSA) approach. Costs were rising with the numerous pre-development issues, and she needed to rein them in. The houses are not automatically net-zero, meeting all their needs through renewables. However, a buyer can buy the upgraded building envelope pre-construction and buy into a CSA to become net-zero. For those more concerned about affordability, a lower-cost building envelope is offered as well. The homes also offer other customizations like dormers and upgraded interiors.

Four home styles are offered, ranging from a 2-bedroom 1,096 square-foot home, to a 4-bedroom 2,136 square-foot model. Prices will range from the upper $200s to the low $400s – upmarket, but not luxury. For comparison’s sake, the median home sold last year in Tompkins County sold for $235k. Cosentini feels the net-zero capability and location just outside city limits will make it appealing to prospective buyers.

“It’s an “out-of-the-city” feeling, but really accessible to things within the city. I can ride my bike out here with bald eagles overhead, it’s such a quick transition on this side of the city. This is somewhat secluded, but when the Black Diamond goes in, it’ll be easier, and kayaking and biking are options. It’s going to be a mature neighborhood right away, it’s not like one of those neighborhoods where all the trees are gone and new ones have to grow in.”

“This neighborhood will have sociality if they want, in the outdoor areas. They can have the privacy of their own yard too. It’s pretty much what people want with single-family living and can’t get right now because there’s such low inventory near town. It’s just a cool thing and so unusual in Ithaca, you can bike or kayak – we’ll have community kevlar kayaks, you can cruise on down to Wegman’s, get some groceries and go back home. Ithaca has all these little waterways and so many places to go on the water.”

For those interested in learning more, the Amabel website has a contact form here, and visitors can also view the show home, a miniature house on the property at 619 Five Mile Drive where features and finishes can be seen and touched.

“There aren’t many homebuilders left. Buzzy’s not doing it anymore, Toby Millman, he did the Belle Sheman Cottages, he’s out. This is a tough nut to crack. We’ll be doing a huge amount of work on-site. I don’t know how other people in the building trades can do it. I’ve still got butterflies about it. Single-family homes for sale in or near Ithaca are practically unicorns.”

Brian Crandall

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