DRYDEN, N.Y. — If you want to stay in good health in the future, you listen to your body. You sleep when it says it needs sleep, you take rest when it’s feeling sick, and you get check-ups at the doctor’s office to get a read on the less obvious stuff. The same thing goes for communities and the people that live in them. The town of Dryden did just that by surveying town residents on what they think are the current planning issues are facing the town, and what the town’s future should look like.

Dryden is in the process of updating its Comprehensive Plan, called “Dryden 2045”, as it tries to envision what the town will be like in 2045. The last major update to the town-wide Comprehensive Plan was in 2005, so the town sees it as a good time to get an update going. As with any Comprehensive Plan, this isn’t about prescribing specifics, like the size of houses on Yellow Barn Road. A Comprehensive Plan is a guideline, identifying existing obstacles and concerns, envisioning goals for the future, and suggesting ways the town can set policy and guide discussion in order to achieve those goals.

To come up with Dryden 2045, the town has a Steering Committee (mostly the Planning Board) to guide the creative process, host open forums both physical and digital, and go about the demanding task of establishing schedules, drafting outlines of what they want to cover in the plan, solicit input, interpret that input, and have something to present to the town board for consideration in 2021.

Right now, they’re in the “interpreting that input” stage, as the results of the town’s survey of its residents have been made available for public consumption. Working with the post office, the town of Dryden mailed out postcards with the website for the survey toward the end of July 2020 to every residence in town, and accepted responses until the end of August. For those not as keen on using the internet, paper copies of the survey were made available through the Town Planning Department as well as various locations around town.

In the end, Dryden received 747 valid responses from the roughly 6,000 households in town, which is actually a fairly decent response rate. Before we dive into the results, there are some caveats to note – for one, 94% of the respondents were homeowners. But according to the U.S. Census’s 2019 American Community Survey, just under 70% of households own their residences. Over 35% of respondents were 65 and older, but the census says only 14% of the town is 65 and older. This means that the survey responses are arguably over-weighted towards the thoughts of older homeowners, which can be a problem and is something the Steering Committee has to review accordingly. For instance, if you’re retired, as 35% of the survey takers were, you’re less inclined to care if your goals make the work commutes of younger residents more difficult. So just keep that in mind as we go through the results, we’re looking at an older and arguably wealthier subset of the town’s 14,500 or so residents.

First off, consideration of the broad goals of the plan, which asks if poll-takers want things like “protecting rural character”, preserving nature and ensuring long-term viability for farms. Questions like these aren’t very informative. It’s like when political campaigns ask if people like freedom – of course they do, especially when wrapped in positive phrasing. The only one that was not strongly positive was whether or not people agreed with the 2005 plan to channel development into hamlets, which was a little weaker on that 1-7 scale of desirability if still largely in favor.

The town of Dryden expects to add about 1,400-1,700 over the next 25 years, which would be around 10% more than the town’s current population of around 14,500, and a growth rate below the national average (which is currently on track to grow 10% in 15 years). Most respondents felt that a slow, steady population growth was fine, while 22% wanted slower growth and 6% wanted population growth to accelerate.

As to where those new people should go, 76% of survey takers preferred new housing be built near already developed areas, with the preferred areas being the existing villages and hamlets, and along major roads. About 18% said to build anywhere.

To encourage affordability, survey takers were most in favor of smaller single-family homes, dedicated senior housing, mixed-use buildings (ground-floor retail) and two-unit/three-unit homes. About 21% said no affordable housing was needed in the town (and the fill in the blank gets a little ugly with its commentary). 55% of respondents agreed the town was an affordable place to live.

On the commercial side, the village of Dryden was cited as the most preferable location for most types of business, though the strongest demand for a grocery store was in the village of Freeville. Industrial operations, manufacturing and warehouses were most likely to be flagged by survey takers as not being desirable in the town. The fill-in-the-blank section was as scattershot as one could imagine, from nothing allowed to everything allowed, and from agricultural CSAs to fracking wells. Most common were requests for more agricultural businesses, recreational facilities, small restaurants/cafés and gas stations. At last check, the Dryden Community Center Café was looking to buy the former Rite Aid space in the village, so that may help fill the need.

There are at points were the survey is in conflict, or it becomes clear that two different thoughts are in play. The most popular choices for “development character” were the mixed-use housing one tends to find in the heart of village cores, and large-lot homes that one tends to find well outside of villages and hamlets.

On the recreational side of things, unpaved trails were the most in-demand feature, followed by paved trails and town-owned park. When people were asked to specify, they wanted bike paths, a town dog park, or a town swimming pool.

Broadly, most folks were in favor of additional environmental protections, but working with land trusts and encouraging existing owners to create conservation easements was more popular than the town buying land outright or subsidizing those easements. People were keener on protecting forests and water bodies than farms and trail areas.

Since parks and trails and land trust deals don’t happen without town funds, people were asked if they’d support tax increases to pay for those endeavors. A little over half (53%) were okay with tax increases to preserve open space, and just under half (49%) for recreational spaces. Only about one-third of survey takers were clearly opposed, with the remainder being neutral and where it likely depends on specific plans.

The vast majority, 75-80% of those surveyed, approved of the town’s efforts to become more environmentally sustainable by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging more sustainable “green” building codes and renewable energy production. Some of the commenters do attack solar energy, while others expressed significant concerns about planned upgrades to the Borger natural gas Compression Station.

One thing that was clearly not very popular – expanded the water and sewer lines. Most of those (two-thirds) who were opposed to the idea said they were fine with their current wells and septic tanks, and many cited an increase in taxes or development as concerns with new water and sewer lines.

Anyway, this is but scratching the iceberg of the findings, and it’s certainly going to give the town of Dryden’s Steering Committee a lot to think about in the coming weeks. Should someone decide to be fashionably late and chip in their two cents, you can reach the committee with this form here. We’ll keep you posted on the town’s new Comprehensive Plan as it develops.

Brian Crandall

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