ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a busy month for the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC). In a sign of just how lively this meeting was going to be, there were over twenty speakers in Public Comment, when normally it’s no more than two or three. You can have a look at the 155-page agenda here, or just jump right into the summary below. The Voice has broken the story that dominated public comment, regarding Right to Renew legislation, into a different article here.

Court and Cayuga Street Rezoning

First up were Special Orders of Business, starting with the public hearing on the proposed rezoning of Court and Cayuga Streets between Downtown and Fall Creek. The item was also on the agenda as an “action item” for a vote on whether or not to send to Common Council, where a vote of final approval can be conducted. More specifically, the rezoning covers parcels on the north side of the blocks between the 100 Block of West Court Street and 300 Block of East Court Street, as well as a few properties on the 400 Block of North Cayuga Street.

Currently, the blocks have R-3a zoning, which used to allow commercial business uses but no longer does. For the small businesses in these buildings, that means any attempt to expand or renovate to allow handicap accessibility triggers a mountain of red tape because they’re non-conforming, even though many have been in their spaces for decades. After several instances of this issue recently, city planners are suggesting a rezoning to B-1a, which is physically similar but allows business uses. The south half of these blocks is already B-1a. The biggest change is 50 percent lot coverage allowed in B-1a vs. 35 percent in R-3a, but these blocks are in the DeWitt Park Historic District, so any expansions would still need to be approved by the ILPC.

Another part of the rezoning is the elimination of the Courthouse Special Use zone and changing that over to B-1a. Once again, the zoning constraints are physically similar between CSU and B-1a, but it will reduce red tape while maintaining consistency with the other blocks. It also helps Tompkins County when they figure out what they want to do with the 400 Block of North Tioga over the next few years.

Several business and property owners sent letters of support for the rezoning, while a number of homeowners wrote in or spoke against it. For instance, Suzanne Schwartz of Sears Street spoke of her concern during the public hearing that further commercial uses would be a safety issue because they are dark and empty at night, and don’t have the watchful neighbors that occupied houses do.

PEDC Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward), who represents the area on Common Council, noted a number of residents in the area had concerns in part because of the legal process rezoning entails. Property owners receive notices of rezoning and are therefore more likely to speak up than residents, a good portion of whom are renters.

City Planner Megan Wilson explained that the rezoning was less about new additions to the neighborhood, and more about trying to accommodate what’s already there. “The city puts forth rezoning proposals for a lot of different reasons…we’re just trying to bringing existing uses back into compliance. The intent wasn’t to encourage additional business or office uses. As we looked through, we found that there were quite a few non-conforming uses in the areas, as well as non-conforming area (lot) requirements. We looked at what zoning would be the best fit for the area and we determined that would be B-1a,” said Wilson.

B-1a zoning would increase compliance with zoning (20 of the 21 properties in the DeWitt Park Historic District portion are non-compliant with R-3a) and reduce the number of variances needed on most properties. The intent is to bring properties into compliance and reduce some of the numerous zoning variance issues.

“I do have a concern about housing units switching to office uses, which could happen under the B-1a zoning,” said Murtagh, who added he lived on these blocks as a renter for six years. “The housing on this block outweighs the commercial uses. We don’t really have a lack of affordable office space in the city, but we do have a lack of affordable housing.”

“We’ve heard from some of the business owners. We’ve heard a great deal from homeowners. I’m concerned about the impact on North Cayuga, Cascadilla, Sears Street homeowners…I’m concerned that such a zoning change would have a negative impact on homeowners. I’d like to see if there’s a way we can seek a middle ground with Special Permits,” said councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th). Special Permits are where unusual usage situations are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. “Megan, do you see a middle ground on this?”

“Special Permits are an option…I personally don’t envision this being a big influx of offices. To address that concern, it’s either leaving (zoning) as-is or a Special Permit option,” said Wilson.

“I feel like we’re conflating non-conforming uses with setbacks and zoning variances, things like lot coverage and height,” said Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st). “I think we’re content with the neighborhood remaining as it is, but we also want to protect the residential uses. It seems to me we have these non-conforming uses and we want to support the businesses that are there and make it easier for them to remain in place. Is there a way to grandfather in those non-conforming uses? We’re not looking to expand it, we’re looking to accommodate what’s there.”

Wilson said it’d be something the city would have to approach carefully, to see if exceptions could be made for R-3 zones, and that they would need to do some research to see if zoning permits, a step below a property use variance, are possible for small requests.

The other second ward representative and non-PEDC-member, Councilor Ducson Nguyen, said that the concerns of residents were largely focused on the 400 Block of North Cayuga Street and that the Court Street portion was not nearly as controversial. He suggested splitting the two, moving forward on rezoning Court Street’s lots for now and coming back to discuss the 400 Block of North Cayuga at a later date. The PEDC gave it a moment of thought and agreed, essentially reverting to the original proposal in August shown above. The motion to send that rezoning on to council, without North Cayuga’s properties, passed unanimously.

Change in Grade Plane and Two-Family Dwelling Definitions

A minor pair of zoning amendments were also up for public hearing and a vote to send to the full Common Council last night. I’m sure all of you are deeply passionate about sloped site zoning and two-family dwelling definitions.

The issue with building grades mainly deals with buildings on sloped sites. Building height is determined from the average grade of a property, called the grade plane, and the roof (or midpoint of roof, if it’s pitched). The grade plane is calculated by determining the lowest points between the building and 10 feet from the building or the property line, whichever is closer. The state uses 6 feet from the building or property line. Therefore, a building on a sloped site has a different height depending on if one uses the city’s definition, or the state’s definition. This amends the city code to align with the state code.

As previously covered, allowed building height really doesn’t change here. The actual change depends on the site, its slope and where the actual slope change is on that site. Some will receive a slightly taller building envelope, some will see it shortened, and it won’t affect flat sites at all. This is more for consistency with state code.

The proposed two-family dwelling zoning regulation revision removes an occupancy limit for homes and apartments in R-3 zones. Currently, going over the limit simply changes the use from “one/two-family dwelling” to “multiple dwelling,” both of which are allowed in R-3 zones (the limit is intended for lower-density R-1 and R-2 zones), meaning the limit has no impact whatsoever in R-3 and is unnecessary.

No one spoke in the public hearing, and neither of these have been controversial. The declaration of lead agency and environmental review of the code changes came and went without comment and both passed unanimously. The grade plan tweak passed unanimously without further comment, and will head to council next month. As for the two-family definition, councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd) sought to clarify that two-family dwellings in an R-1/CR-1 zones are non-conforming, which Wilson affirmed, with a modest exception the case of a single-family home with an accessory apartment. With little further discussion, that too came up for its vote, passing unanimously for a trip to council in November.

Multiple Dwelling and Dormitory Definitions

Another minor zoning amendment on the agenda for a public hearing and vote to send to council has to do with how multiple dwellings and dormitories are defined in city code. The current definition of “multiple dwelling” has been problematic because it allowed houses used as group housing, boarding houses and self-proclaimed dormitories to skirt the parking requirements intended for multiple dwellings (row houses, townhouses, apartments, etc.). The proposed changes will close the loophole by standardizing parking requirements across all multiple dwelling categories and allowing only properties owned by schools to claim dormitory uses.

This seems like a good time to remind everyone that parts of the zoning code date back to the 1920s and it’s the largest single component in Ithaca’s municipal code, full of vague wordings, outdated sections like regulations on telegraph stations, and potential loopholes.

Once again, no one spoke or wrote in for the public hearing. The declaration of lead agency and environmental review of the code changes came and went without comment and both passed unanimously.

Discussion on the ordinance itself was limited, though councilor Brock sought clarification on the status of dormitories by private operators not affiliated with a college or university. Planner Wilson said they become multiple dwellings with the parking requirements that go with it, so if they try to increase occupancy they’ll need to provide it somewhere or seek an area variance.

“I think that this great to just clean things up and make things more consistent. I just want to thank Megan (Wilson) for that,” said Fleming. The vote to send to council for potential final approval next month passed unanimously.

Cliff Street PUD

Last in the Special Orders of Business for public hearing/vote to send to council is the PUD (Planned Unit Development, i.e. make-your-own zoning) for the “Cliff Street Retreat”. The PUD has already been approved in concept, now comes the part where the Common Council approves an actual site-specific zoning code (the PUD) and development plan for the property. Not much has changed since PEDC saw this last, with the addition of two standalone two-bedroom cottages on the north edge of the property, and the proposed trail to Cass Park becoming a raised boardwalk rather than surface paving (done for the sake of reducing weight on the slope). The PUD code is modeled on the city’s B-2 zoning permitted uses alongside more stringent regulations for R-3 building size and lot coverage, done to complement the surrounding R-3 residential-zoned properties.

The last of the night’s four public hearings, there was no one present to speak about the plans; after months and months of various reviews here and at the Planning Board, the plans have largely been hashed out by this point.

“I think that this a great mixed-use development,” said Lewis, though she added she wanted more information on if the proposal to connect this site to Cass Park via a trail was feasible. Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas said it would involve city property and tree removal, so there would be some work required before approval. Those tree removal costs and trail work would be paid for by the developer.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm among neighbors with the vibrancy and energy that this would bring,” said Brock, who represents the ward in which the project resides. “I’m really happy to see this come forward.”

The vote to send to council passed unanimously.

Right to Counsel Eviction Legislation

Right to Counsel eviction legislation mandates the presence of eviction court monitors to provide support and legal representation for tenants in eviction cases, especially those in which the landlord may be retaliating because the tenant reported unsafe conditions. The Ithaca Eviction/Displacement Defense Project, managed by the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County and launched in January 2020, works with a Cornell Law Fellow and legal interns, LawNY, and HSC’s Housing Specialists to provide representation and guidance. It also provides a hotline (Ithaca Tenants Resources) so that renters can receive those pro bono legal resources and have a legal team stand with them in city court. The city would cover the $125,000 cost of the program as an item in its budget, and the program would be managed by LawNY.

Last night, the item was up for a vote by the PEDC on whether or not it should go to the full Common Council for a final vote in November for approval as a funding item. Councilor Lewis has been spearheading the effort.

“I think this is a great proposal…I was wondering if it was your intention (councilor Lewis) to limit Right to Counsel to non-payment evictions, or bring it to all evictions?” asked Brock.

“I had intended initially that it would be focused on non-payment evictions. I was helped tremendously in thinking through this complex issue with conversations with Carl Feuer and Keith McCafferty at LawNY. I think this may very well apply to all evictions, not only non-payment. But one of the issues that we’re dealing with is that we do not have good data, eviction court has not been in session. I think it should be more inclusive, but I’m hesitant to say absolutely. We don’t know for certain the number of cases that will come forward (when eviction court resumes),” said Lewis.

Following some debate, the second “resolved” proposition in the resolution was deleted at Brock’s suggestion given that there was some concern about committing to change a law at a later date while bringing forth an action in the first item. The non-payment specification was also removed in favor of a generalized right to counsel in evictions, and the language was tweaked a bit (from a right to counsel “law” to “program”). The vote to send to council carried unanimously, and if council approves the program, it would be funded when the next city budget is approved.

Energy Efficiency Retrofitting RFP

While this topic came up last night, my colleague Jimmy Jordan, who has done a fantastic explainer on this proposal, will be covering it in a separate article, and this reporter knows when to leave a topic to the experts. You can read here about the PEDC’s decision to move the Energy Efficiency Retrofitting RFP onto the Common Council.

Other Business

Way down in the weeds here, but the city of Ithaca will award small grants to neighborhood groups for community beautification projects and events, known as Neighborhood Improvement Incentive Funds (NIIFs), pending PEDC approval. In this case, the South Hill Civic Association requested $200 to cover some of the costs for their South Hill Fall Fest this Sunday afternoon 1-3 PM at South Hill Elementary. Since the ask if less than $500, it does not need full Common Council approval, just the PEDC’s. The grant approval vote passed unanimously.

In reports, sustainability Director Luis Aguirre-Torres stated in his report that the city was working to bring a bikeshare program back to the area, and that a small-scale solar grid was being explored for a vacant 32-acre city-owned parcel in Southwest Ithaca. In her report, Planning Director JoAnn Cornish’s noted that the city will be hosting a virtual historic preservation planning conference in November.

Also, this was Cornish’s last meeting as Planning Director, as she sails off into retirement and whatever adventures that follow. On behalf of the Voice, thank you for your responsiveness and willingness to sit down for interviews over the years, the city of Ithaca benefited greatly from your years of service. Lisa Nicholas will be the Acting Director of the department.

Brian Crandall

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