ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a busier meeting than last month’s brief gathering for the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee. The PEDC entertained a couple of informational proposals, an update on green energy goals, and held votes on zoning tweaks and a weekday “Park-n-Ride” at the Farmer’s Market site.

Quick programming note, the agenda items “Response to Unhoused Proposals & Reports – Next Steps” and updates on the TIDES proposal will be covered in a separate article. The Voice wants to give them extra column inches for the sake of completeness in covering that important issue.

Presentation – Zoning, PUDs and You

First up in Special Orders of Business was “Zoning and PUDs – A Presentation”, courtesy of Zoning Administrator Megan Wilson. Wilson’s presentation was very much “Zoning 101” — what it is, how it’s applied, what does “non-conforming” mean, types of zoning variances, and PUDs.

Now, having covered this a number of times over the years, the spark notes version is that Ithaca’s zoning is rather complex (43 types of zones) and often outdated (parts of it date back to 1926). Most new projects need to seek some number of zoning variances, and this injects a lot of uncertainty into the process, which neither developer or city officials enjoy.

A PUD allows a developer to propose their own zoning, to be approved by Common Council, and separate from the actual building project subsequently planned under that zoning. Since Common Council has to approve the PUD, they can use it as leverage to make sure a project fits with desired community goals, such as affordable housing, job creation, sustainability, and so on.

The presentation was also an opportunity for councilors to ask about certain details, like the right to rebuild in the event of a fire or natural disaster, and the rules on multiple primary structures on building lots. This was an informational presentation to inform council members of how it all works; no votes, no debate, just a cordial Q&A.

Drinking Water Source Protection Program Presentation

The other Special Order of Business Wednesday night was another presentation – “Drinking Water Source Protection Program – A Presentation,” courtesy of Liz Moran of Ecologic, LLC, and Lauren Howard of engineering firm Barton & Loguidice.

For those unfamiliar, Six Mile Creek and its tributaries are the primary source of the city’s water supply. Ithaca is fortunate to live in an area with typically abundant fresh water, and has regulations in place to protect its water supply. Despite these measures, there are a number of risks to availability and quality — potential
impacts of land use, climate change, invasive species, for examples. The city became infamous in the early 1900s for a typhoid epidemic driven by its contaminated water supply, and it was just a few years ago during a summer drought that water supplies dropped precariously low. Long-term protection of Six Mile Creek and its watershed has to be a top priority for the city to ensure adequate quantity and good quality.

Recently, New York State launched the Drinking Water Source Protection Program (DWSP2) and offered technical support with identifying strategies to prevent water quality degradation. The City of Ithaca was selected to participate in the DWSP2 and Moran and Howard were on hand to walk the PEDC through the Executive Summary, providing an overview of the scope, findings, and recommendations of the program.

Moran opened the presentation. Six Mile Creek primarily draws from the towns of Dryden, Caroline and Danby, with a more sensitive catchment area adjacent to the creek itself. Regulations and protections of the watershed date as far back as 1933, with more extensive efforts in the past thirty or so years. With the DWSP2 program, a group of non-profit and muncipal stakeholders was gathered to establish goals for protection, determine land use and zoning within the Six Mile Creek watershed, identify potential contaminant sources (previous spills, storage facilities, regulated discharges) with help from consultant EDR, and rank issues by priority.

As explained by Howard, The number one threat as determined by the group was erosion and sedimentation, which can greatly damage water quality. The number two threat was inappropriate types of development affecting or contaminating discharges. Ditch management/road runoff, nutrient loading (algal blooms), and invasive species were also cited as the next subsequent largest threats to the water supply.

The near-term is to adopt the plan as a guiding document and engage in adaptive management to address sedimentation, runoff, climate change and development issues related to the water shed. This would involve dedicated personnel (which is being arranged with the county) and annual progress reports as the implementation plan is developed and executed. Superintendent of Public Works Mike Thorne noted that the sediment issue is a major problem and a pricey one to fix, but the report may make the city more competitive for grants to help cover the costs of sediment removal and erosion control projects.

The PEDC was receptive. Councilor Brock (D-1st), who is a representative in the stakeholder group, asked city staff to put the guidance documents and the final report, on a city website for public consumption. It should only take a week or two for the report to be finalized and published, which would allow it to be reviewed in time for the next budget season.

Community Choice Aggregation (CCA)

To review, the City of Ithaca recently began the process of exploring a program known as Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) as a part of the Ithaca Green New Deal (IGND). A CCA allows local governments to go out onto the open market and purchase power directly from energy service providers other than the one that dominates its retail region, which in the case of Ithaca is New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG). The power is being purchased on behalf of the residents of a town, village, or city, and can include multiple municipalities. In New York State, residents of a municipality can be automatically enrolled into the CCA, but they have the right to opt out of CCA agreements.

Municipalities don’t get to choose where their power comes from when buying from NYSEG. A CCA can be crafted in order for a community to find cheaper energy, regardless of whether it’s generated from solar farms or natural gas. In the case of Ithaca, the CCA that is being explored would be crafted for the City to purchase 100% renewable electricity. Though, the transmission infrastructure that would bring the electricity to people’s homes is owned by NYSEG, so the utility company would still have a transmission fee included in people’s electric bills.

While the concept of a CCA is fairly straightforward, and much of the work is out of the hands of the general public, for a municipality to enter into a CCA a complex legal structure needs to be formed between a municipality and the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC), which will take some negotiating. CCA implementation overall will involve some time, paperwork and manpower in the form of a CCA Administrator. The City’s 2022 budget allocated $100,000 to pay for the implementation and cost study which is being done by consultant Local Power LLC.

According to city Sustainability Director Luis Aguirre-Torres, the CCA could lead to as much as a 50% reduction in the city’s carbon emissions, 200,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and comparable to the annual use of about 45,000 vehicles. The CCA would be one part of the city’s climate plan, alongside other objectives like electrification of heating and appliances. If council approves and the process doesn’t get hung up, a Request for Proposals to supply the CCA could be issued in early spring 2023.

The PEDC is on board with the idea, though they want to take a close look at proposed costs and impacts as they are fleshed out – Councilor Brock sought affirmation that customers would not see an increase in costs, and Aguirre-Torres said projections suggest the CCA would result in a 10-15% cost savings to city power customers because it’s large-scale purchasing, basically buying in bulk directly from the supplier with only a transmission fee going to NYSEG for use of their lines.

Brock further had reservations that the CCA Administrator would be a third-party contractor rather than a city staffer. In reply, Aguirre-Torres said Common Council would have to approve the administrator and had the right to review and perform due diligence on that party.

“Many do believe in nuclear being a clean source of energy, we came close to having a plant on Cayuga Lake…will council have the ability to decide whether nuclear is part of that composition?” Asked Brock.

“Absolutely,” responded Aguirre-Torres. “I expect it to be mostly solar, but in the RFP, we can narrow the scope to make sure it is 100% renewable energy. Nuclear is clean energy, but it is not renewable energy.”

“Are we telling our constituents we have to replace our natural gas furnaces with electric furnaces,” asked councilor George McGonigal (D-1st) with an air of concern.

“No, they can still participate in the CCA and their electricity will come from CCA sources. Nothing will be mandatory,” said Aguirre-Torres. As hashed out in McGonigal and Aguirre-Torres’ conversation, there will be incentives to replace natural gas-supplied utilities and appliances, especially as current systems wear out, but they won’t be forced to.

Another update will be forthcoming at the August PEDC meeting, with potential voting items with regards to CCA implementation. Watch this space.

Zoning Tweaks to Definitions of “Story” and “Basement”

Get the trimmer, because we’re going into the weeds for this one. Let’s do this in a nutshell. The city has made efforts in recent years to align its zoning definitions with those of New York State Building Code. This involved the establishment in city zoning of a definition of “grade plane” and a revised definition for “height of building.”

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 six feet from the building or the property line, whichever is closer. 

Currently, there is a problem. There are times where a building may be a 4-story building under zoning and a 5-story building under Building Code or vice versa. This is because a basement may be considered a story under one code but not the other. The proposed zoning amendment will revise the definitions of “story” and “basement” to provide a consistent determination of whether a building’s basement is considered a story under both the City’s Zoning Ordinance and NYS Building Code.

Long story short, the city is matching their code to the state’s. The effects on allowed building heights are expected to be minimal. Councilor Brock expressed concerns that it would allow developers to get away with adding another floor, but Zoning Administrator Wilson contended that the legal wording prevents most if not all instances. This is just an effort to provide consistency and clarity in zoning and building code laws.

The vote Wednesday night was to “vote to circulate”, which means that the proposal goes out to the public and city/county departments for comment before coming back for another round of discussion and a potential vote in August to send to the full Common Council for acceptance as law. The vote to circulate passed unanimously 4-0, with councilor Rob Gearhart (D-3rd) absent.

Ithaca Farmer’s Market Park & Ride

The Ithaca Farmers Market Cooperative, Inc. (IFM) seeks permission to operate a 50-vehicle commuter “Park-n-Ride” facility at the City-owned Steamboat Landing site. IFM sees an opportunity to serve Ithaca-area based commuters going to Corning, Inc., who want to lease parking spaces on weekdays. A chartered bus would take the employees to and from Corning.

The land lease between the city and IFM, last updated in 2010, specifies that the Farmer Market’s parking lot shall remain open at times the market is not in operation for use “by the general public for passive, non-exclusive, low impact and low intensity recreational uses.” A park-and-ride wasn’t considered back in 2010, and with this opportunity on the table, IFM is asking Council to consider an amendment to the lease to allow for the weekday park-n-ride to Corning.

The parking lot fits over 300 cars and there would be no designated area for Corning Inc. personnel, they would just mix in with the usual weekday traffic, which isn’t nearly as much as the weekend flow. Corning gets a shuttle, IFM gets $500/month, and with any hope, Common Council gives its permission on behalf of the city.

Last night involved a vote on whether or not to send the proposal onto council for an authorization vote. Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) Executive Director explained the proposal to the PEDC; the IURA represents the city in negotiating the explicit terms of approval and the legal contracts. For the record, if a car is damaged while in the lot, it’s IFM’s insurance, not the city’s, unless the city was “grossly negligent,” e.g. city staff parks a trailer there and it rolls off into a Volvo’s front end.

The vote to send council to vote on permission passed unanimously, and Council will vote on approval at their August meeting.

Brian Crandall

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