ITHACA, N.Y. — Last night’s city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting was much more interesting than the legal and regulatory nitty-gritty that has driven the past few months of discussions. There was some talk about short-term rentals, a new Collegetown fire station, and Green New Deal progress, all covered in the summary below (and the agenda’s here, for those who like to have notes on hand).
Quick programming note, the Draft Concept Report on TIDES, the Ithaca Dedicated Encampment Site, was on the agenda Wednesday night as a non-voting discussion item, but my colleague Matt Butler will cover that in more detail in a subsequent article. So let’s just note that it was discussed Wednesday night, but it will be written about in a second piece dedicated just to that topic.
Green New Deal Update – Electrification Kick-Off
First up on the agenda was a report on the start of Ithaca’s Energy Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification Program. The city’s Director of Sustainability, Luis Aguirre-Torres, was present to give the councilors on the PEDC an update.
Aguirre-Torres explained that with the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement (Green Building Policy) in the books, contract negotiations are underway, as well as community engagement with a planned “listening tour”. Buildings are being evaluated with help from Cornell and Ithaca College researchers for electrification assessments – it’ll take a while, given that the city has over 6,000 buildings, about 70% of which are residential. Climate justice, workforce development, infrastructure and outreach programs are ongoing discussions. NYSEG has come to a tentative agreement to invest at least $60 million to upgrade substations and the electrical grid of the city of Ithaca.
City councilors were enthused with the progress though still cautious about impacts on homeowners. Councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd Ward) stressed the need for community engagement, and councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) asked about plans for a benchmark law to incentivize the switchover of homeowners away from fossil fuels. Aguirre-Torres noted this metric, based on New York City’s, a work in progress. Initial plans are to identify a metric starting with commercial buildings to analyze their energy consumption and determine what a reasonable “limit” for fossil fuel use is before a fee or fine may come into play. Mayor Lewis stressed there are no mandates or laws in consideration yet.
“We’re real proud of you and the work that you do,” said councilor George McGonigal (D-1st) to Aguirre-Torres. “We feel like we have a major league ball player on our team.” McGonigal asked about workforce training programs, and Aguirre-Torres discussed hands-on programs underway at BOCES and at New Roots Charter School, to train people in trades to help with renovation and electrification.
East Hill Fire Station
As reported earlier this week, the city of Ithaca is mulling a proposal to sell the existing 54 year-old Collegetown No. 2 Fire Station at 309 College Avenue for $5.1 million plus land donated by the buyers, developers Phil Proujansky and John Novarr, for the construction of a new $9 million fire station on the 400 Block of Dryden Road.
The PEDC will be voting on a pair of items specific to the fire station proposal. The first voting item authorizes the Mayor to exercise the option agreement for purchase and sale of the properties in question. The second voting item authorizes the transfer of 309 College Ave to the IURA for the purpose of undertaking a negotiated acquisition and sales agreement. The IURA is the city department that works out the terms and then (if deemed satisfactory) executes the sale of city-owned property.
In public comment, Patrick Braga, Vice President of Development for rival firm Visum Development Group, expressed frustration with what he called an opaque process, saying that Visum had previously made an offer for the station that would have been more lucrative for the city.
City Attorney Ari Lavine opened the discussion. “It’s been a long road to get to this point, this is an exciting opportunity. […] The alternative is to spend a lot of money to renovate the existing station on College Avenue, which is probably not the best investment at this time.” Tom Parson also chimed in, noting the existing station site is getting crowded with nearby residents, and in checking out other sites, this Dryden/Elmwood corner parcel strikes the right balance of being a good location with relative ease of access, and Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency Executive Director Nels Bohn called the redevelopment a “sound investment”. City Interim Planning Director Lisa Nicholas did a quick walkthrough of what the site plan review process would look like.
Mayor Lewis asked if there would be any expected contributions from the town of Ithaca, give that the city and town share fire districts. Chief Parsons explained that the city would go to the town to request their approval to move forward and pay for a share, likely about one-third of the costs, bonded over 25 or 30 years. Cornell is not obligated to pay because their payment in lieu of taxes agreement is for fire service rather than capital improvements. Councilor Rob Gearhart (D-3rd) had noted some residents have expressed concerns with traffic congestion associated with the relocated fire station, and Councilor Patrick Mehler (D-4th) said he was speaking with business owners.
This is in the discussion stage for now, but it will be coming back next month, and likely a few more visits to other boards over the course of this summer and fall. Given years of discussion and foregone plans, it’s a bit jarring to see it all suddenly come together at once, but it looks like all signs point forward with making the new station a reality.
Climate Justice Community
The only item up for a vote this month was a revised definition to the term “climate Justice Community” as applied by the city of Ithaca. As described in a memorandum from Rebecca Evans, the city’s new Sustainability Coordinator, the proposal before the PEDC is to accept a definition of “Climate Justice Community” that supports the goals of the city of Ithaca’s Green New Deal (GND). The GND has goals for not only reducing greenhouse gases, but improving social equity, so by creating this rubric based on the definition and its criteria for climate justice, the city can conduct neighborhood censuses to inform outreach and engagement efforts on behalf of the GND’s goals.
In other words, you define what a “climate justice community” (CJC) is, build criteria around those terms, and then conduct analyses to figure out what neighborhoods are most in need of resources and infrastructure investments, the ones most fitting the CJC definition being the ones most in need. Household income is a part of that definition, but it also includes whether a neighborhood has “at-risk” groups or if it’s been historically underserved with resources or good infrastructure, here meaning access to energy, transportation, employment options and chances to engage government.
The resolution includes the following proposed definition: “Climate Justice Communities (CJCs) are communities, including but not limited to individual households, that bear unfair and disproportionate burden of the negative impacts of climate change; are least able to prepare, withstand and recover from the effects of climate change; possess certain health, environmental and socioeconomic attributes; include disproportionate concentrations of low- and moderate-income households; or are associated with other present or historical social factors that act as threat multipliers on a warming planet with limited resources.” It’s followed by a fairly extensive list of socioeconomic criteria in how to determine if a neighborhood is a CJC. With some editing, the vote to send to council was unanimous.
Up for discussion only on last night’s agenda was the rather throny topic of Short-Term Rentals (STRs), which have been the source of controversy across the county in recent years as municipalities try to come up with legislation that accommodates them to some degree without turning neighborhoods into oversized hotels.
The city is still in the process of formulating its regulations, which are to be brought forward for discussion and potential legislation at some point within the next 6-12 months. In the meanwhile, when asked about their legality, here is the official statement as provided by city Zoning Administrator Megan Wilson:
“The City’s Zoning Ordinance currently does not make a distinction between short-term and long-term rentals, and short-term rentals of an entire dwelling unit (not individual rooms) are currently permitted in zoning districts where residential uses are allowed. All short-term rentals must maintain a current Certificate of Compliance, meet the occupancy limits of the zone in which they are located, and remit all required occupancy taxes.”
“If you take a single-family home and choose to use for a short-term rental, then you’d have to pull a building permit for change of use because then it’s not a private residence, it’s a business use, and it has to meet New York State building code,” said zoning officer Jamie Gatch. “We’ve struggled with enforcing short-term rentals because the only time we hear about them is with a complaint.”
It’s expected that when the legislation comes forward that it will prohibit STRs in certain residential zones and place more restrictions on STRs overall, but until then, as long as it’s in a zone that allows residential use, pays occupancy taxes, stays within occupancy limit and has a Certificate of Compliance with city building code enforcement, then it’s all above-board and okay to operate. In the meanwhile, the city and county will be collecting more data to inform policy guidance as it’s developed in the coming months.