DRYDEN, N.Y. — It’s been about three years since Dryden launched its effort to update the town’s 2005 Comprehensive Plan, a vision for the future the town has dubbed “Dryden 2045”. With the draft completed, the town is ready to take more of your comments as it works towards acceptance of Dryden 2045 as a guiding document for the next two decades.

“A Comprehensive Plan gives form. Without form, you have sprawl, waste and inefficiency in your community and your services. For a town to maintain its character, you have to have a plan, a way to manage resources and growth and to protect the things you care about in a community,” says Town Councilor Dan Lamb. The town Planning Board makes up much of the Steering Committee for the Comp Plan update, and since Lamb’s the town board liaison to the Planning Board, he’s involved in the update process as well.

“For us, it’s our rural heritage, we’re proud to be a farming town, but that’s not how we’re solely defined. You look at some of the more ambitious things we’re trying to do in this town, to have this multi-faceted community with farmers and business people and people working in Ithaca and Cortland. We’re trying to be smart about where we put our growth, and we need a plan to keep the growth from being chaos.”

It’s been a rather difficult process to get to this point, not because of the townspeople or the committee, but because the pandemic really threw a wrench into town activities. Pandemic impacts on the health and the economy took precedence, and there was some question as to whether they should even continue with updating the 2005 Comprehensive Plan.

The thing is, it may not feel like it sometimes, but 2005 was a long time ago and things change (dig out your old flip phone and iPod for evidence). Some things have changed for the better; for instance, there have been major advances in materials science, battery technology and clean energy generation, which allows the town to better pursue environmental sustainability. Lamb also sought to draw attention to Dryden’s plans to become “the first town in New York State to have municipally-owned and operated broadband Internet”, something that would have been technologically infeasible seventeen years ago.

On the other hand, other issues have grown worse. Dryden has long been the more affordable alternative to Ithaca city and town, and the Cayuga Lake communities. While that’s still true, home values have soared across the county in recent years, due to a lack of supply and enormous demand, and housing affordability has become a major issue in Dryden. In the minds of the Steering Committee, it made sense to continue with their efforts, and adapt to the the pandemic-stricken times.

“We looked at new avenues like Zoom to gain input and attend meetings. That’s how we were able to get a lot of public input. Not just through email, but the ability to attend meetings remotely. All of the Steering Committee meetings have been public. We heard from people we otherwise wouldn’t have heard from, and we kept the window open longer for this process, so people have been more aware of this and comment if they’re inclined,” said Lamb.

Almost three years on, the Dryden 2045 plan has now been written and is ready for public comment. You can find the 179-page draft, which was crafted with the help of Syracuse-based planning form EDR D.P.C., on the town’s website here.

For those of you who just want the spark notes version, well, let’s start with a disclaimer first. Comprehensive Plans are not prescriptive. They don’t tell you what to build and where. These kinds of plans recommend where to cluster homes and businesses and public facilities, and what to focus on in planning and review, and where to keep the land open and undeveloped. However, it’s not the law. Think of it like seeing your doctor; they can advise you what to do to improve your health, but they can’t make you do it. However, Comprehensive Plans do help shape laws, and guide the Planning Board and Town Board’s judgements as new projects are proposed.

From a planning perspective, the general advice is to cluster new housing and businesses where they already exist – by the villages of Freeville and Dryden, in the hamlet of Varna, and along Route 13 and Route 366 closer to more built-up areas like Ithaca and Lansing. The rural and undeveloped expanses, 91% of the town by acreage according to the draft, are generally advised to be left as they are, farms and protected natural lands with a few homes here and there. If you look at the current zoning map, it’s largely continuing what’s already in place, with the only notable changes being a little more business space in the west end of town along Route 13, a little more housing ringing the village of Dryden, and some mixed-uses along the Route 13-366 corridor. The more densely-populated areas are advised to be transit-friendly (bus/pedestrian facilities), energy efficient and of modest physical scale, never more than four floors.

Lamb offered this summary on the land-use planning: “I think one of the things we offer as a town is open space, in the sense of a rural community that still has a mixture of suburban housing, municipal centers like the village, parkland, state forest land and farming. We’re a large town, we have a lot of nice things and we don’t want to lose them. We have to have it in our mission to maintain open space. To do that as you grow, you have to concentrate your housing. The era of big-acreage single-family home lots is over.

I think there’s a consensus that to be sustainable as a town, preserving what we like about it, we have to direct development to certain areas, where there’s infrastructure and where commuters will want to live, in order to maintain and preserve open space elsewhere. That’s a real priority.”

In recent years, Dryden has benefitted from industrial firms in the area seeking more space. Firms like Incodema and Knickerbocker, who are drawn by the relatively lower land values and easier transportation than locations closer to Ithaca’s urban core can provide. The town would like to encourage more renovations of existing light industrial and manufacturing facilities to promote economic growth, and encourage new, energy-efficient builds in areas with the infrastructure (traffic, water, sewer) to support that intensity of development.

On the other end of the spectrum, the town is keen on protecting open spaces, protecting farm land, and making use of natural areas for recreation, like the Dryden Rail Trail, which it sees as a regional tourism generator alongside ag-tourism.

Speaking of development, the hamlet of Varna is its own rather sensitive topic for the town. It has a draw for Cornell commuters, students or staff; it also has long-term residents who would prefer those folks not be anywhere near them. The development draw that Varna provides to homebuilders and apartment developers is well-established, and the stories of how it often goes wrong for them are just as well-known. The Dryden 2045 plan keeps the 2012 Varna Plan addendum intact and largely as-is, which is going to neither thrill the pro-development types or please the anti-development ones.

“Some residents have said that the zoning changed didn’t meet the Varna’s Plan stated objectives, while others in town think it did. There’s always some ambiguity in these documents. I don’t think this (Dryden 2045) removes the Varna Plan’s ambiguities, but it sets an overall vision for where we want development. I understand the objections to the prior proposals in Varna, Trinitas is off the table. It was never a good fit, we just struggled to find justification to say no in the context of zoning law. At the same time, we still have a housing shortage in the town and the county, so that makes it hard to dismiss out-of-hand. Varna has water and sewer, a shorter commute to many employers, the Rail Trail. We just want to make sure the development is compatible,” Lamb said.

As for affordable housing, the town has already taken a step towards the plan’s recommendation with the inauguration of a citizens’ workforce housing committee, which has the goal of promoting, adding and retaining moderate-income housing to the town’s inventory. They’ll have a lot of work to do.

The type of housing promoted in the Dryden 2045 plan is meant to address this in-part. The majority of the value of a home is in the structure itself, but even a small house on a large acreage is still going to be expensive because a lot of land has a lot of value, and that value is growing. It makes sense to cluster for-sale homes and forego vast estate-like settings.

“We’re aware of how the market works, it’s more profitable to build high-end homes, and that it’s more profitable to do market-rate rentals. But that doesn’t help us get a broad cross-section of people served with housing in this town,” noted Lamb.

So long story short, this plan basically builds upon current trends and tries to nudge future development to more compact, already settled parts of the town, ideally in a more affordable and environmentally-friendly way. There’s no massive warehouses or gleaming skyscrapers, nor does it say to wipe any existing villages or hamlets off the map. It’s building upon Dryden’s good qualities and trying to address areas in need of improvement.

Lamb sought to stress as much in his summary. “I think of this as an evolution. We’re not throwing the old plans away. They’re still required as a part of this new plan, to look at the work that has got us here, and build on that.”

For those who want to chip in their opinions on the Dryden 2045 plan, the Public Hearing on the Draft will be this Thursday the 26th at 6:20 PM. You can head to Town Hall in-person or join via Zoom link found here. The committee will adjust the plans based on public feedback, hand it over to the Town Board, and the town board will have its own public hearing before potentially accepting the plan as their guiding planning document for the next twenty or so years. Lamb, for one, is hopeful that they’ve come up with a guideline the community welcomes and supports.

“We don’t want to put the next generation at a disadvantage, environmentally or economically. This plan addresses a number of sustainability aspects with energy use, land use, and public infrastructure. We want this to continue to be a place to live where people can grow here, start a family here, retire here, that can offer people a wonderful place to live. We want you to be able to run a 21st-centrury business from your home with affordable high-speed internet. We’re building a 21st-century town, maintaining our community and attracting people to live here.”

Brian Crandall

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