LANSING, N.Y.—Fifty years ago, it was slated for development into a nuclear power plant. At present, it’s undeveloped forest and rented farmland. In the future? The forecast is uncertain, pending the results of a planned auction later this month.

The Bell Station property includes about 470 acres of undeveloped land on Nut Ridge Road, near the county’s northern boundary in the town of Lansing. Among the vast property’s features are limestone lakeside cliffs on 3,454 feet of shoreline, two smaller gorges with waterfalls, and the usual swaths of picturesque countryside one tends to conjure up when describing the Finger Lakes.

In the 1960s, the land was acquired and plans were hatched for a nuclear power plant to be built along the shoreline. However, this was late in the glory days of nuclear plants, after the initial allure wore off and before incidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl thoroughly killed public support. Although the project was approved by the county at the time, public opposition arose, rooted in concerns about Cayuga Lake’s water quality, and after years of studies, legal obstacles and delays, the nuclear plant proposal was dropped in 1973.

In the years since, the ownership, which is now the New York State Electric and Gas Company (NYSEG), leased some of the land out to neighboring farms, and the other half remained undeveloped woodlands. However, after a half century of ownership, NYSEG has decided it’s time to get rid of the property, and will do so via a sealed-bid auction. A sealed-bid auction means that no bidder knows what the other auction participants have bid.

According to the online advertisement for the auction, the starting bid for the property will be $750,000, and the online portion of bidding will be from Oct. 11-13. The Tompkins County Tax Assessor’s office has the 470-acre parcel valued at $1.97 million. Interested bidders must register with the commercial firm in charge of running the auction before they can submit a bid.

With any sale of property, there is uncertainty—in most cases, you don’t know beforehand who your buyers are. That’s especially true for 470 acres of vacant lakeshore property. Private estate, resort, farming—the possibilities are almost as expansive as the land itself. That’s a prospect that has Andrew Zepp, the Executive Director of the non-profit Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT), quite worried.

“We have been pursuing the acquisition of this property in partnership with NYSDEC (the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) for a number of years now, and have had a number of contacts with NYSEG staff.  While the Land Trust is prepared to offer NYSEG appraised fair market value for Bell Station, we are seeking cancellation of the auction.  This is because an offer from either the Land Trust or New York State is limited to what can be documented by an appraisal.  Others participating in the auction are not similarly constrained.  The auction would create unnecessary risk for the single largest privately owned, undeveloped shoreline parcel remaining in the Finger Lakes region,” said Zepp.

In other words, the Land Trust is constrained because, operationally, they’re only allowed to pay fair market value, arguably an offer close in value to the tax assessor’s finding. Being a sealed-bid auction, if you’re a wealthy person looking for your future private estate land, if you drop $3 million or $4 million here, that might be more than a neutral third-party appraiser would say it’s worth, but the land is yours and you win the auction.

Now, that’s not to say that a buyer can just do whatever they please with the land. For one, the final sale is contingent on NYSEG obtaining regulatory approval from the New York State Public Service Commission as required by Section 70 of the Public Service Law. What that means is, if your intended use is identified by New York State as being against the public’s interests, they can toss the bid and deny the sale.

Secondly, the town of Lansing’s Planning Board would still have to weigh in on any development plans, and that property has always been slated for undeveloped open space and ideally, public use. It would be extremely difficult to gain approval for a massive housing development, but a mansion or private campground on such sprawling acreage is certainly within the possibilities. When the town’s Comprehensive Plan was revised a few years ago, major controversy erupted because the initial revisions suggested the Bell Station land, then being negotiated between NYSEG and NYSDEC, could be rezoned to allow for low-density lakefront mansions, a suggestion that was later quashed.

It’s the public use aspect that Zepp emphasized in the land trust’s pitch to obtain the property. Ninety percent of Cayuga Lake’s shoreline is privately owned. The Finger Lakes Land Trust, which is dedicated to open space and land conservation, sees the property as an opportunity to offer the public a significant asset as a public wildlife management area with trails and low-impact recreational uses and limit further potential harm to Cayuga Lake’s water quality and wildlife.

In another nod toward environmental sustainability, of the easternmost portion of the Bell Station property, the rented-out farmland, for the installation of solar arrays. Not only would it result in the land finally being used for power generating facilities as intended decades ago, Zepp stated that the combined natural space and solar array proposal has already been endorsed in concept by the Town of Lansing.

This is what underlies the push to cancel the auction. The FLLT knows they’re constrained and there’s a sizable risk they’d be outbid, so the hope is to convince NYSEG to cancel the auction before it happens and take a fair-market value offer for the land. NYSEG may not get as much money for it, but it would still be a fair market price and it would enjoy broad support from local and state authorities, as well as a sizable portion of the public. To that point, a Change.org petition supporting the FLLT’s approach has garnered over 3,200 signatures, and the Tompkins County Legislature approved a resolution expressing their disapproval of the auction choice. However, a NYSEG company spokesman has said it intends to pursue the auction option in the interest of transparency and fairness.

Regardless of how it happens, the Bell Station property will have a new owner in the coming months. But whether it ends up someone’s private property or a public land preserve is for NYSEG to decide in the next few weeks.

Brian Crandall

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