ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a productive and brief meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Committee (PEDC) this month.

Plans for clean-energy bulk buys, drinking water protections and a new bikeshare service were reviewed by the committee, among other items on the agenda.

As always, The Ithaca Voice is here to give you the summary. For those who like having notes handy during their readings, the relatively modest 37-page agenda PDF can be found here. Those interested can also watch the whole meeting here.

Included in this story:

Community Choice Aggregation (CCA)

This month, the PEDC meeting started off with a pair of Special Orders of Business, in this case Public Hearings about proposed legislation. The first item up for comment was the proposed Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program.

The City of Ithaca recently began the process of exploring a CCA program 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. However, 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 recently-departed 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. It would also 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.

The PEDC has been on board with the proposal, though not without some reservations that the costs and savings may be too rosy. Following the Public Hearing, the PEDC was scheduled to take a potential vote of approval to send to Common Council in November. If the full 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 Public Hearing came and went with no one from the public offering comment. On hand was Aguirre-Torres via Zoom to answer any questions the PEDC might have.

“I also want to use this opportunity to say how much of a privilege it was to lead the Ithaca Green New Deal,” he said. “It is definitely unique, it is making people think differently, I appreciate the opportunity given to me to lead this effort.”

After expressing her gratitude, Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) asked about next steps and if, as a local law, a city staff member could take on the role of CCA Administrator. Aguirre-Torres said it’s certainly possible, though the recommendation was to go with a third party so as to not burden city staff. A recommendation for a third-party administrator would follow Public Service Commission approval of the CCA proposal, which won’t be for at least a few months. An interim administrator (consultant) will serve as a point of contact for the PSC’s 90-day review period.

Brock had expressed some concerns with wording in the law that discussed other types of funding and investment programs like distributed energy resources, and said the city needed to keep “close reins” on the CCA administrator in order to make sure users understand the obligations and risks prior to entering such a program. Aguirre-Torres responded that the implementation plan would determine specifics from the “wide menu” of the local law. It would be up to the city and any neighboring community partners submit an explicit plan to the PSC that would fit the needs of the city and its residents.

The vote to forward the proposal onto the full Common Council passed unanimously.

Drinking Water Source Protection Program

The other Public Hearing scheduled for last night dealt with the Drinking Water Source Protection Program Plan. Like the CCA proposal, PEDC was also set to vote on this for a potential trip to Common Council for final approval in November.

To recap, 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; for instance, potential impacts of land use, climate change, and invasive species. The city of Ithaca became infamous in the early 1900s for a typhoid epidemic driven by its contaminated water supplyand 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. The current plan dates back to 1936, and talks about the need to keep privies and animal carcasses away from streams.

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 the PEDC was treated to an overview and proposed implementation plan at their meeting last month, and has been receptive to the proposal.

The near-term objective 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 watershed. This would involve dedicated personnel (which is being arranged with the county) and annual progress reports as the implementation and maintenance plan is developed and executed. The plan could be approved by council as soon as October, which would allow it to be considered for funding in the city’s next budget.

Roxy Johnston, the Watershed Coordinator for the Ithaca Water Treatment Plant, was once again present to speak about the program. As with the CCA, the Public Hearing came and went without public comment. As for the Council, as this has been discussed for a few months, they had little to add to this point. Other than a minor typo noted by Johnston in the resolution, the bulk of discussion was Acting Mayor Laura Lewis reading the resolution. The vote to send on to council in November was unanimous.

Ithaca Bikeshare MOU

Last of the voting items to send to Council was the proposed Memorandum of Understanding between Ithaca Bikeshare and the City of Ithaca.

As part of the city’s ongoing efforts to encourage alternative modes of transportation to personal vehicles when possible, the city desires to make bikeshare services available to City residents, visitors, and commuters. The non-profit Center for Community Transportation (CCT) proposes to operate a bikeshare program
within the City that will “efficiently and effectively provide such bikeshare services”.

In a related matter is a funding agreement in the works to purchase electric bicycles to be included within the bikeshare program, an inked agreement is a requirement in order to receive a $50,000 capital grant to cover electric bike procurement. Electric bikes can go 14-16 MPH and assist with uphill climbs, though it did not like they could do it without some rider effort.

As MOUs go, the structure is fairly routine. Bikes will be lockable and trackable through a smartphone app, bikes can be ridden and parked in public rights-of-way, the CCT assumes legal and financial responsibility for insurance of bikes and any damage caused by bikes, bikes are maintained by the CCT. Reports on use and “performance standards” are to be filed and riders are to follow the laws. It’s not a partnership, but rather permission from the city for the program to operate on city property. You can read more of the proposed language in the agenda here.

City Transportation Engineer Erin Cuddihy was on hand to talk about the bikeshare MOU. Cuddihy mentioned the previous LimeBike experience with its benefits and issues. The CCT Bikeshare Program, to be run by LimeBike alumnus Jeff Goodmark, intends to build on that wisdom while rolling out its fleet of bikes under a “much tighter and nicer program”. The smartapp approach allows them to actively track bike usage and take certain bikes out of service during expected slower periods. Branding of the bikes would be an advertising option for business partners.

Discussion of the proposal ran the gamut from favorable to hesitant. Mayor Lewis clarified that Goodmark would be the “Point of Contact” for bikeshare Operations and Maintenance, and councilor Brock said she appreciated that, through CCT, the operation would be locally owned and operated, and councilor Patrick Mehler (D-4th) cautioned against return visits asking for more money, to which CCT’s Jennifer Dotson responded that they did not plan to, but there may be instances where they apply for federal grants with city support.

“How did you get input from communities where bikes may not be what they need? I’m not excited about this whole ‘getting bikes’ thing when I think communities use other avenues to help people get around…bikes are not going to help the person who has three, four children.” said councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd).

“The point of offering small vehicles for single people to have trips is not the overall solution to any problem. But what it does is that it reduces the number of people who rely on cars as their main way of transportation,” replied Goodmark. “The more different versions of transportation you can offer, the more chance you have of people choosing these instead of cars to get around.”

There would be a discounted service for income-eligible households and alternative programs for those without smartphones.

According to Goodmark, the goal would be to do a soft launch later in the winter as there will only be a few riders, and then phase in more bikes as the weather improves in the spring. The timeline stays on track for now, as the PEDC voted unanimously to send the MOU on to the full Common Council for approval next month.

Other News and Notes

First up for presentations last night was presentation from city Sustainability Planner Rebecca Evans regarding a “Draft Climate Action Plan and Implementation”. This was just an overview, the whole shebang will be shared with the PEDC next month, with review during November and December and potential Common Council approval in January 2023.

The document will include a Greenhouse Gas Inventory and trends from 2010-19, Mitigation Strategies and Actions, Infrastructure Actions, Foundational Elements and Equity Considerations. This is meant to tie into the Ithaca Green New Deal and the Comprehensive Plan. Expect a lot of talk about decarbonization and electrification of fossil fuel-using equipment, transportation strategies, and the CCA discussed earlier. Infrastructure will focus on reliability, flexibility and resiliency. The “foundational elements” and social considerations look at public-private partnerships, workforce strategies, and social justice initiative in the context of climate issues.

Evans was also tapped to give a second presentation about Sustainability Updates and Transition Plans – a vague way of basically saying “here’s what the Ithaca Green New Deal has done in the past 18 months, and here’s what’s coming in the next four months”. The “success stories” of the past 1.5 years includes building codes updates, a green jobs training pilot the all-electric conference center and a study into solar and battery storage in Southwest Park. With any luck, the next few months will add the CCA and the beginning of heating electrification of city-owner buildings. A Zero Emissions Transportation strategy for replacing existing fleet vehicles will also be rolled out in the next few months.

There was also an update from the Working Group regarding unsanctioned encampments of homeless individuals, which according to Planning Director Nicholas, they’ve developed a questionnaire for city department heads to determine staff impacts and needs to address the current unsanctioned encampments and what it might be if there were a sanctioned encampment.

The working group is also looking at the policies of several other cities (Oakland, Salt Lake City, Montpelier) to help guide Ithaca’s approach, and a recent court case, Martin v. Boise, that says people can’t be ticketed for sleeping outdoors if no beds in homeless shelters are available. They’ll be reviewing questionnaire answers and drafting proposals in the coming weeks.

Brian Crandall

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