September 17, 2007

Housing Subdivision Halted

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Last Monday the Ithaca Town Board voted unanimously in favor of adopting a 270-day building moratorium for an area in northeast Ithaca adjacent to Sapsucker Woods, effectively freezing the development project Briarwood II. The decision represents a further step toward what may become the final resolution of a six-year disagreement involving neighbors, environmentalists, developers, the local government and the Lab of Ornithology.
According to Fred Wilcox, chair of the Planning Board for the last eleven years, the disagreement dates back to 2001, when the board first saw the first proposed subdivison. After returning before the board several times with revised proposals, the applicant, Rocco Lucente, again came before the board in 2006 “with something similar to what’s being proposed today,” Wilcox said.
The current proposal includes a 76-residence subdivsion, with about 25 acres to be donated to the Lab of Ornithology and a small lot of additional parkland.
Members of the community have vocalized concerns that the Briarwood II development would exacerbate existing problems in the northeast area of Ithaca, namely with stormwater run-off and management, but also with the risk of potentially losing a unique natural area.
A comprehensive drainage study was done for the area as result of these appeals that found a serious drainage problem due to the prominence of a particular kind of soil that “normal engineering problems can’t alleviate,” according to Prof. Bill Sonnenstuhl, industrial and labor relations, a longtime Ithaca resident. Nancy Ostman, natural areas director for Cornell, and F. Robert Wesley, field botanist for Cornell Plantations, conducted another study that verified the designation of the land as a unique natural area and the presence of some species that would suffer from the effects of the development on the area.
“We were in favor of the moratorium basically to look at all the data again to see in fact whether this should be made into a conservation zone,” Sonnenstuhl said.
Representatives for Lucente conducted studies of their own. They said they are not responsible for current drainage issues in the area, that the development will not exacerbate the current problems and that the land is incorrectly designated as a unique natural area.
Larry Fabroni, Lucente’s engineer for the Briarwood II project, has lengthy experience with the property, having first begun to work for the developer in 1987.
“If you have a drainage problem in your lot it has nothing to do with Mr. Lucente,” Fabroni said.
During the meeting of the Planning Board, Fabroni suggested that the data as presented by the opposition was misleading and unresearched.
“Did they ever walk the land?” asked Fabroni, referring to Ostman and Wesley, who conducted the study attesting to Sapsucker Woods’ ecological value. “It seems pretty sure that they didn’t.”
Fabroni and legal representatives for Lucente quoted similar studies in which no species of either plant or animal was found in the Sapsucker Woods significant enough to deter development or to recommend the land for conservation re-zoning.
Those defending Lucente also point to the proposed donation of roughly 25 acres to the Lab of Ornithology.
“This is one of the most generous donations ever made in a subdivision process in the town of Ithaca,” Fabroni said.
Dr. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Lab of Ornithology, said the Lab was conflicted about the issue.
“Our mission, which is interpreting and conserving biological diversity, dictates I prefer minimal or no development as a rule,” Fitzpatrick said. “On the other hand, I know about private property rights, and I know about properly done developments to some degree and when they are done in an ecological way … they can be accomplished with relatively little impact.”
The land donation would greatly increase the Lab’s holdings and serve as a significant ecological buffer, rounding out the southern border of the lab.
Fitzpatrick said that the Lab has expressed its willingness to accept this land and the management responsibility, but is trying to remain neutral in the debate.
Fabroni made it clear that the moratorium would affect the offer of land to the Lab.
“There would be no land donation if the moratorium led to a conservation zone. Not practical, and the way that the tax law works it’s not considered a bonafide donation under that type of zoning,” Fabroni said.
Several representatives for Lucente accused the board of having political motivations for halting their long-awaited project.
“Political patronage has never been a way the town of Ithaca plans, and we didn’t do anything in the planning process to earn this kind of attention in a political campaign,” said Fabroni. “Whether they were pressured or otherwise to throw doubt over this whole project I don’t know. They are very close to some of the neighbors of the project, who know what went on.”
Supervisor Cathy Valentino described her own reasons for supporting the moratorium.
“I was never really thrilled about the project to begin with … once we had the real facts … it just seemed important that we should have a moratorium so that we could take diligence and look at all the aspects of this much closer,” she said.
The democratic primary for the position of supervisor is tomorrow. Valentino is running against a fellow member of the board, Herb Engman, also an outspoken opponent of the Briarwood II development.
“You get accused of being political, of not caring, of not paying attention. You are sympathetic, but sometimes it seems kind of mean-spirited. They are that way because they are concerned, you just have to move on and do the best you can,” she said.
Now that the moratorium has passed, construction on the area will freeze for 270 days. No development plans can be finalized while the moratorium is in place.
“The next step is trying to hire the consultant,” said Valentino. “Hopefully we’ll hire the right consultant and get the right report that will help us make the final decision we have to make.”
The hiring of a consultant to investigate further is time sensitive; any studies conducted on the land will be made more difficult after the beginning of winter weather. The board will take the full time needed to gather sufficient data to determine whether the land needs to be re-zoned for conservation or whether the development will be allowed to come again before the board for final approval.
Prof. Peter Stein, physics, and town board member, was one of the first to speak in favor of the moratorium at the conclusion of the public hearing at the meeting last Monday.
“I understand the need for development — we’ve got 18,000 people in Ithaca and they gotta gave a place to live,” Stein said. “But if we develop every inch of Ithaca, it won’t look like the Ithaca I live in and want my children to grow up in.”