October 13, 2006

Protest Focuses on Sapsucker Woods

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Almost one hundred years ago, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a native Ithacan, in a bit of wood he knew so well, made a discovery. This discovery was the first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest ever found in the Cayuga land basin. Fuertes went on to become one of the most famous and influential bird artists of the century, and the bit of woods in Northeast Ithaca thereafter became known as “Sapsucker Woods”. Recognizing their value, Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology adopted part of the land in the ’50s as a sanctuary.

Flash-forward to 2006 — the woods have established themselves as a forest, a home to a wide variety of life — not only plant, but bird and mammal. One can stroll the same paths and admire a slant of afternoon sunlight through the trees, accompanied by the friendly chatter of birds.

Today, much of the Sapsucker Woods are privately owned and developed with apartment complexes, housing subdivisions and miles of asphalt with rushing cars.

Rocco Lucente, the owner of some of this land, has built many homes in the area of Sapsucker Woods. According to the website of Save Sapsucker Woods, an opposition group, his newest project, “Briarwood II,” proposes the inclusion of 47.5 acres of land (47 residential lots). 18 acres of wood will be cut down, and 25 are being offered to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“The Lab’s mission is to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education and citizen science focused on birds, “ said Scott Sucliffe, associate director of the Lab of Ornithology. “The addition will be good for Sapsucker Woods from a wildlife standpoint. Moreover, it will provide opportunities for additional woods trails for Lab visitors and the local community to use.”

The offered acres make up a piece of property adjacent to the Sanctuary’s southwest border. The addition of this property, said Sucliffe, “round-out the sanctuary, providing additional bird and wildlife habitat and a buffer between the developed properties.”

Save Sapsucker Woods claims that the land to be donated to the lab is useless to Lucente, consisting mainly of wetlands not likely to be developed. In an article in the Ithaca Journal, a member of the group criticizes Cornell’s blind eye to the issue, saying, “How lamentable it is that Cornell University so easily discriminates between what lies inside their preserve from what lies outside and feels no compunction about the latter.”

The group identifies themselves as concerned neighbors of the woods — residents of the neighborhood, residents throughout Ithaca who share concern for the loss of open space in the community and outside citizens who know about the woods and are concerned for its preservation.

“We oppose the Briarwood II development for many reasons: additional streets, more traffic, more noise and pollution, drainage issues, decreased quality of life and the needless destruction of woodland habitat,” the group states on their webpage.

Save Sapsucker Woods, according to Adrian Williams, was formed this past summer after a group of neighbors attended the Ithaca Town Planning Board meetings in June and July.

“We were dismayed by the lack of public notification and awareness of Briarwood II, and by the haste with which the Planning Board granted it preliminary approval and passed its environmental assessment,” he explained. “The Planning Board, we feel, did not give the vital concerns of citizens enough consideration.”

This issue is not a new one. The process first began three years ago.
“It is a long process,” said Fred Wilcox, chair of the Town of Ithaca Planning Board. “But it needs to be.”

The proposal began as a “sketch plan” — where an applicant comes before the board, states an idea, and gets feedback.

“That plan was one we didn’t like. It was not protective of wetlands in the area, the basic issue,” Wilcox said.

The applicant returned a second time, and despite improvement, the board thought it an unreasonable subdivision. In early June, the applicant came before the board again, with a revised plan. This plan, a 50-lot subdivision — 47 for residential development, 2 lots of wetlands to Cornell and a small lot of additional parkland — is the plan the board reviewed.

Wilcox explained the process of the environmental review, as an assessment of primary issues.

“1. Drainage in that area, regarding which there are already distinct problems; 2. protection of the trees, to the greatest extent possible; 3. traffic, because they will be primarily residential, single-family homes and 4. protection of the wetlands.”

He also explained that the state of New York goes through the environmental review process, when there are potential environmental impacts.

“ It doesn’t require that the public be awarded the opportunity to speak,” he added. “The town of Ithaca Planning Board has made it an un-written policy to provide a chance to speak when we believe the members of the public really do want to address the issues.”

Based upon the materials provided by the engineer (of the applicant and board’s own) the determination was made that the issues would be alleviated by the manner in which they were proposing to deal with drainage, traffic, roads, etc. The planning board determined there would be no significant environmental impact.”

Six weeks later the applicant received preliminary approval with a list of conditions 30 conditions, various things that the applicant must do in order to come back to the planning board and request final approval.

Save Sapsucker Woods plans to defend their position raising awareness about “this impending — and excessive — change to our community.”

They are petitioning the Planning Board and Town Board to review decisions taken thus far.

“In our close scrutiny of the Briarwood II proposal we have found many flaws that we intend to bring to the Planning Board’s attention, urging them to reconsider their preliminary approval,” Wilcox said. “Should the applicant come back for final approval, the public will be given another opportunity to let us know of their concerns.”

About the board, he said, “I don’t know whether we’ve done a good job or bad job; what I can say is that every step of the way the board has made it a point of giving the public a chance to speak. A good job doesn’t mean that members of the public agree with what we did. A planning board is not a discretionary board. We can’t tell Mr. Lucente he can’t have his subdivision because we don’t like it.”

At the recent Apple Harvest Festival where Save Sapsucker Woods group members sought signatures for a petition, Wilcox, also in attendance, spoke with them.

“That is part of the public process,” he said. “With their concerns, opinions and even opposition we will be able to put together the best decision.”