November 29, 2000

City Debates Development Plans

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After months of debate and disagreement from all involved parties, the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board will make a final decision Monday on the plans for a new shopping center to be built near Buttermilk Falls State Park.

Plans of the Widewaters Group, a development corporation, for the Elmira Road Shopping Center include the construction of a Target store, a variety of small retail stores, restaurants and a large parking lot.

However, residents have expressed environmental, economic and aesthetic concerns.

“Shopping malls are everywhere but there is only one Buttermilk Falls,” a community member said at last night’s City Planning and Development Board meeting. Other Ithaca residents discussed their concerns over the problems of noise, traffic, lighting and the injury to the park that a shopping center could cause.

Many residents who spoke at the meeting were upset at the prospect of viewing buildings from Buttermilk Falls.

The Citizens’ Planning Alliance presented a draft of their plan for the development of the area that includes buildings only placed out of sight from the falls. But, Scott Whitham, chair of the Planning and Development Board, said that the plan fell short of the compromise for which the board was hoping.

“Looking down on asphalt is no better than looking down on buildings,” said board member Jane Marcham.

When board member Kenneth Vineberg exhibited his version of plans for the shopping center, the Widewaters Group rejected it on the basis of cost and competition for parking.

Some board members reacted to this with frustration. “We’ve been doing this for months and every suggestion has been impossible for one reason or another,” said Steven Ehrhardt, another board member.

“The planning board has been put in a position here where we’re really just planting trees,” Vineberg said.

The Widewaters Group began its presentation with a series of grievances that they wanted to state “just for the record.” Speaking for the corporation, Marco Marzocchi expressed displeasure with the planning board for holding outside communications, discussing the issue of contamination on the site, and allowing public comment on the issue.

Many of Marzocchi’s concerns stemmed from the involvement of Walter Hang, Toxics Targeting Inc. president, in the issue.

Speaking as a member of the public, Hang raised concerns at the meeting of groundwater contamination by MTBE, an additive to gasoline.

Earlier in the year, the Widewaters Group cleaned the lot to remove petroleum contamination, following the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s [DEC] regulations. The DEC concluded that the cleanup had ended the issue of contamination. However, Hang claimed that a possibility exists that high levels of MTBE, a carcinogenic, are still possibly present on the land and will be impossible to clean up once buildings are built.

“I believe you need to do a much more vigorous investigation to find out where this stuff came from and where it’s going,” Hang said. “If this contamination does discharge into the inlet there could be substantial impact.”

The planning board indicated that its members may contact Hang this week to discuss the possibility of further environmental testing before the final vote takes place on Monday. Marzocchi admonished board members for engaging in one-sided communications and charged that, “this board has absolutely no jurisdiction, no authority regarding the environmental contamination cleanup.”

Whether or not the many issues of the shopping center are resolved, the board must make a final decision on Monday. The plan will be approved or rejected.

Vineberg predicts that the plan will pass as “the only people that will object are Scott [Whitham] and I.”

Archived article by April Sommer