LANSING, N.Y.—Having sat through and watched some number of planning board meetings over the years throughout the larger communities in Tompkins County, it’s safe to say they tend to be emotionally muted affairs with their respective appointed members. The meetings are cordial, on the dry side, often critical of proposals but rarely with pointed language. On the flip side was last night’s village of Lansing Planning Board meeting, which introduced a rare though perhaps merited experience: thinly-veiled acrimony. Here’s a rundown of last night’s meeting; unlike city agendas, the village of Lansing just provides one-page summaries, and the March 30th meeting can be found here.

For those used to reading my columns on the City of Ithaca’s Planning Board, the project review process in the towns and villages is largely the same. Site Plan Review (SPR) is where the review of new building proposals happens. In the interest of brevity, a quick primer is included below, but if you want a description of the steps in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” is here.

During SPR the Planning Board looks at sketch plans, declares itself lead agency for state environmental quality review (SEQR), conducts a review and declares negative (adverse effects mitigated) or positive (potential harmful impacts, needs an Environmental Impact Statement), while concurrently performing design review for projects in certain neighborhoods for aesthetic impacts. Once those are all good and finished, they vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after reviewing a few final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval.

Lansing Senior Cottages (Millcroft Way)

First up on the discussion agenda for the village of Lansing’s Planning Board is Beer Properties’ plan for the former Millcroft subdivision between Craft Road and Bush Lane. Readers of the Voice and now-discontinued Lansing Star (we miss you Dan) may remember that the original plans for 108 senior (age 55+) senior rental units shared in 2018 and required a Planned Development Area because they were designed in a ‘pocket neighborhood” format. However, the project faced stiff opposition from neighbors, and the village Planning Board turned the PDA application down in February 2019.

A few months later, the Beers returned with a more conventional suburban subdivision that slotted a senior duplex on each of about forty home lots. Instead of clustered cottages with common grounds, the plan calls for clustered home lots, which allows the lots to be a little smaller in exchange for the preservation of a greater amount of open natural space. The preliminary cluster subdivision approval issued in November 2019 gives permission for 76 units on 41.19 acres, with trails, park-like spaces, and 4.56 acres of “forever wild” land. Nothing in the later version conflicts with the village’s Medium Density Residential (MDR) zoning, which made it an easier sell, though neighbors were still largely opposed (explained here).

With that preliminary approval granted in November 2019, the next significant step is the development of specific building plans that have to be presented as part of final subdivision plat (lot) approval. Last night was a step towards that, with an informal review of the detailed lot plans. Ostensibly a year and a half is a long time to get to this point, but COVID-19 got in the way and the Beers are local developer/landlords who derive most of their revenue from student properties; like most student housing owners, they became much more cautious during 2020, and held off on moving forward with big new investments until the market and pandemic situations were more stable. The Beers have been clearly invasive species from the land, and the quonset hut for equipment storage was a highly contested debate itself.

As developer David Beer stated at the meeting, one lot would host the community room, maintenance office and equipment garage, and most of the other lots have had minor changes since the preliminary approval. Some trails have been deleted and modifications have been made for slightly wider rights-of-way for the roads (from 60 feet to 70 feet), and to better accommodate stormwater protection. Project engineer Chris Wood added that his firm, Hunt Engineers, Architects and Surveyors, had the property re-evaluated for wetlands, and stated that some areas that were originally thought to be wetlands were not, so that allowed a return to 42 building lots plus the community room lot—eight lots (lots 7-10 and 34-37) would be for-sale single-family homes, and the remaining 34 would be senior duplex rentals (68 units), for a total of 76 housing units on 42 lots.

The Planning Board sought to verify that the Army Corps of Engineers would be involved to make sure a third-party was validating the wetland findings. Wood said they were already receiving information to which village Engineer Brent Cross expressed pointed frustration that the Army Corps was receiving information before the village had seen it. Specifically, Cross cited lot lines that did not make sense to his eye because they included small amounts of wetlands and could be designed to exclude the land completely, and so the village wouldn’t have to regulate and police fourteen different lots. The issue is that if the Corps signs off on the subdivision plans but the village hasn’t because they’re still reviewing it, the Corps basically can tell the village to go pound sand, and ostensibly the village would like to have their say without feeling like applicants are maneuvering around them. Cross further added he wasn’t sure the village wanted 70-foot road right-of-ways, to which Wood replied that to meet village code, the minimum width.

“I don’t think that’s true…I’ll check with (village Superintendent of Public Works) John Courtney, but I just don’t see why the village would want the extra width,” said Cross. Planning Board Chair Lisa Schleelein suggested the project team have a working meeting with Cross, Code Enforcement Officer Mike Scott and other relevant staff to hash out the details.

It was readily apparent that some large-scale features on lot lines and the wetlands in relation to the Army Corps of Engineers needed to be sorted out with village staff in a working meeting before further discussion gets underway, and Schleelein encouraged everyone to drop by the village office to look at the drawings, as the initial set was too big to send along in email. On a related side note, an escrow account will also be established to cover the village’s professional services review costs for the subdivision plan.

Lansing Meadows (Oakcrest Road)

The other discussion item on last night’s agenda was a subdivision sketch review for developer Eric Goetzmann’s Lansing Meadows senior housing on Oakcrest Road next to the fire station. This project has had more twists and turns than Watkins Glen International, with multiple iterations and contentious board meetings stretching back eleven years. The latest installment in this development soap opera of Goetzmann’s project is his request to subdivide the 18-unit project into 20 lots (the 19th is for stormwater, the 20th is the private road). The project is six triplexes, being built in two phases, with the first 12 units to be ready by this summer, and the remainder by the middle of next year. The subdivision requires a special ruling because as townhouse-like units, it doesn’t meet the yard setback or lot size requirements. While not explicitly stated, a subdivision would allow Goetzmann to sell the units instead of operating them as rentals.

Image courtesy of the Lansing Star.

The question facing the Planning Board is whether or not it’s a major subdivision or a minor subdivision, which Goetzmann has stated as affecting the distribution of the utilities. A longstanding issue has been potential plans for another four triplexes on the northern flank of the private Lansing Meadows Drive, which is not formally proposed but looms over the decision-making process. The latest issue has been a concern for several months with not much in the way or progress.

The discussion became rather heated quickly. Schleelein emphasized that Goetzmann’s request is a major change and would be subject to the extensive re-review required as it’s a PDA, a Planned Development Area, which is the village of Lansing’s version of Ithaca city’s PUD, the do-it-yourself zoning that the village board approves in exchange for community benefits.

“There’s no question that it’s a major subdivision,” said Schleelein. “To my mind, this is a PDA…first and foremost, it’s its own unique zone. I think more pertinently what the Planning Board has to decide is whether this is a major or minor change to the PDA itself….this is not about the subdivision per se, but taking one parcel and splitting it into 20 at this point. That to me is a major change, and to me it would have to go back to the same review and authorization procedure as the original PDA. I don’t see why you would want to do that, personally. I consider this to be a rather major change.”

“There’s no question that it’s a major change to the PDA,” added Planning Board member Carolyn Greenwald. Her colleagues Mike Baker and James McCauley agreed, and McCauley asked why Goetzmann would insist on pursuing this.

“Two major reasons; one is that without individual lots for each one of these, we cannot pull a meter from Bolton Point for water, everything is in the ground and you’re allowed one meter per tax parcel. The second piece down the road, we need a subdivision with each unit on their own parcel to create a homeowner’s association to run this entire project,” said Goetzmann.

“Is the major reason that you want to sell the lots? Because that’s the reason,” said Greenwald.

“This has been talked about before the planning board for, oh geez, at least a year if not more. Why suddenly now is the question of subdividing coming up? Why wasn’t that brought up before?” asked McCauley.

“We’ve always talked about subdividing this property and we’ve spent the last 14 months trying to change the district regulations to do that,” replied Goetzmann. “You know, it just seems that to do a subdivision, like the mall did next door, it’s really not all that different…it’s always been the goal to have individual lots and move forward with the project.”

“The proposal to subdivide at this stage of the game, in my opinion, is a major change to the PDA,” affirmed Schleelein.

“We’re not changing the density, we’re not changing anything else in the PDA,” Goetzmann replied.

“It doesn’t have to have anything to do with density to be a major change,” stressed Chair Schleelein. “We have had a development plan, going on the third year, and now you want to change it, and I, I just-“

Goetzmann interjected. “The reason we’re requesting this, we’re getting these buildings built, but we can’t get the water turned on because it allows one meter per tax parcel. We’re not changing the density, we’re not changing the use, we’re not changing anything else, you can see the parcel…all it does is allow us to obtain water meters so we can turn the water on. We need water on site. Everything is piped, everything is underground, ready to go, but we just can’t connect it…this is just an opportunity to get water to the buildings.”

“When I said I was having a deja vu I meant I’m having a deja vu,” said the board’s Tony Ingraffea. “This is at least the third meeting we’ve had where this issue of water meters has come up. Third time. It’s the second time I can remember the HOA thing coming up. I thought we had this settled. I thought you were going to negotiate with Bolton Point about how to handle the issue of only having a single meter for that whole site in such a way that allocation would be handled. As far as HOA is concerned, write your own rules.”

“You have to have individual lots in order to have an HOA. We can’t apply without having multiple lots,” said Goetzmann.

“Then call it something other than an HOA that fulfills the same objectives,” Ingraffea shot back. The disdain between applicant and board was readily apparent. Board members clearly interpreted the request as Goetzmann leading them on again and yet another instance of the developer abusing years of privileges and leniency on the PDA, and Goetzmann himself played it as the planning board giving him enormous grief over largely non-physical changes.

At village attorney Bill Troy’s insistence, the Planning Board had its vote and cast a unanimous 5-0 decision that it was a major change and that Goetzmann discuss the next steps with Code Enforcement Officer Scott.

Other Business

In other news, member Ingraffea reported that Maguire Nissan bought nine hemlock trees with the intent on planting them on-site but later determined to not be workable. The trees were gifted to the village, and as young trees the village should be able to plant them where they wish when delivered next month, to enjoy for a few years before the invasive species kill them (apparently the woolly adelgids prefer older trees anyway). Greenwald stated that the adjacent town of Lansing is finalizing its short-term rental rules and was likely to have no limits on stays for lakefront properties while having 29-day limits everywhere else, something she said was certain to cause a lot of drama for the town, and likely to affect the village’s discussions as they formulate their own short-term rental plans.

On another note, Ingraffea went to check out the 25-acre Cornell property on Uptown Road and found that it was bedecked with tons of garbage on its interior along with fire pits and benches, apparently because people have been using it as a low-key party spot. Cornell has requested a rezoning from the village’s medium-density residential (roughly half-acre single-family and two-family lots, no multifamily) to high-density residential (up to 7 units/acre for multifamily) to make it more enticing for potential future development, but the village’s Board of Trustees has taken no vote on the idea, citing reservations with what could be done with high-density development, but also aware that waiting until something comes along to do upzoning or downzoning could be legally perilous “spot zoning”.

Officially, the public hearing on the Cornell land rezoning is still open, and Cornell will come in to a Board of Trustees meeting to discuss more explicit possibilities. In their opinions, Ingraffea and McCauley thought it would make a nice park, to which Schleelein said some land was already given up by Cornell to make the village’s Dankert Park. To editorialize for a moment, I’m sure that’s meant as a pleasant thought, but it also comes off as tone-deaf in light of this area’s well documented housing affordability issues.

Brian Crandall

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