LANSING, N.Y.—The Beer family has not had the best lucky with their plans to develop the former Millcroft subdivision off Craft Road. The initial plan was shot down by the village, and now the more conventional plan is facing its share of obstacles.

As some readers may remember, the first submission from the Beers back in 2018 called for 108 senior (age 55+) senior rental units and required a Planned Development Area (PDA) 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).

“Our idea was to build a series of pocket neighborhoods that orient to one another by having their primary façade, their primary entrance, face a common green space that would encourage people to interact with one another; there’s not a road between houses to separate structures. The whole idea is to encourage bubbles of neighborliness. This concept goes back millennia but in current times…we think they’re amenable to our target rental market, which are seniors, maybe empty-nesters, who are looking for a rental arrangement where they don’t have to worry about the exterior maintenance of their properties. With the pocket neighborhood configuration, they’d be moving into a neighborhood that would welcome them, and moving into a cohesive community,” says developer David Beer.

However, a preliminary subdivision is not a final subdivision, which brings us to last night’s debate. The two hours of discussion, which became heated at several points, dealt with a number of concerns that had been raised since the preliminary subdivision had been approved by the village of Lansing’s Planning Board.

The two primary issues raised had to deal with the road intersections shown in the preliminary lot and road layout (the plat), and the proximity of the loop road on the eastern end of the property to the neighboring Heights of Lansing (Nor Way) subdivision approved in the mid-2000s. Some concerns were also raised about the tightness (radius) of the curve of the loop road.

More specifically, as pointed out Village Engineer Brent Cross, the configuration as proposed would create four intersections within a 650-foot stretch of road. While they’d be local access roads and managed by stop signs, Cross said that in his experience residents always ending up demanding four-way intersections within a few years of construction, and having that many stop signs in such a short stretch would be a constant nuisance if not ignored by neighborhood residents.

As for the Nor Way issue, members of the Planning Board expressed issues that the layout as proposed by the developer in the preliminary plat would hem in the townhouses to be built at some future date—there would be a narrows vegetated buffer behind their backyards, and then the loop road that would serve the cottages’ residents.

“We can’t totally put behind us the PDA situation, except that it was a different project. I know that was a disappointment for you…but that said, when you came to us with a preliminary plat, that this really seemed to be a good project for the village, a benefit to the village. In general, this was a concept that we thought was going to work. But preliminary means preliminary. The plat had not been looked at, and you move forward with the preliminary plat understanding there will be some changes. I hadn’t realized you were still totally in your mindset of trying to salvage the pocket neighborhood concept. I think there are some real issues that we have to work out together, before we can move forward,” said village Planning Board Chair Lisa Schleelein.

The approved preliminary plat at left, and the village’s suggested plat at right.

Village staff have proposed an alternative plat that would create a single four-way intersection in place of the “T’s,” and would place lots between the Nor Way townhouses and the loop road, but David Beer was reluctant to support the idea, as it produces less pocket neighborhood lots (where the homes face each other across common areas and the rear facades face the road) and more conventional lots where the front entrance faces the road (23 in the Beer plan, 19 in the village’s).

“I just don’t think the safety concern is valid in this super-quiet neighborhood. It’s this safety concern that is driving the village’s attitude that the roads should be reconfigured and a dozen lots reconfigured to accommodate a different intersection design,” said Beer to the board.

The crux of the frustration seemed to be the very large amount of change suggested by the village; typically there isn’t much change between preliminary and final plats. To suggest these changes now, with the very real risk of withholding final approval unless they’re carried out, is always a possibility if uncommon. For David Beer it was clearly a taxing prospect, and the village was finding various ways to say that these things can happen with further analysis from staff and board.

“Let’s go with the design on the right. Everyone will be happy. Maybe not as happy as they could be, but then the Planning Board can move on to other things,” said the board’s Tony Ingraffea.

Further complications arose when project team lawyer Ray Schlather suggested off the cuff that the village’s plan could be adopted if they were willing to compromise and allow for a little more density on the parcels adjacent to Nor Way townhouses – a string of townhouses, rather than duplex cottages on each lot. Beer was open to it, seeing it as an appropriate exchange for the loss of his pocket neighborhood lots, while the village was very hesitant, and offhand, Code Officer Mike Scott wasn’t sure they’d be allowed in the MDR zoning – and it looks like they are permitted, given that the project is a cluster subdivision.

In the end, there wasn’t much headway to be made in the meeting. The options on the table appear to be either going with original plan with a traffic study to try and back it up, even though the Planning Board is reluctant to approve that plan, or the village’s plat, with the possibility of townhouses on the parcels adjacent to Nor Way. Beer and his project team will meet with village staff to discuss what works and to address the engineering concerns, and the project will be back before the village planning board on Jan. 25.

“What we need to do is take a step back, come together, and revisit some of these ideas. Knowing some of our concerns, maintaining some of your vision…we need to take a step back and see if we can get back on the right foot,” said Schleelein.

Brian Crandall

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