In 2005 The Dryden Planning Board composed a comprehensive development plan for the Town of Dryden. Subsequently, in the Dryden community recognized the need for a plan that is unique to developing the hamlet of Varna. According to Jane Nicholson, AICP Planner, of the Dryden Planning Department, "the Comprehensive Plan is essentially a framework that helps guide the community over period of ten to twenty years. Once a Comprehensive Plan is complete, it is up to the community to implement it. In the case of Varna, it was recognized by the town that with increasing development pressures in the Varna vicinity and availability of water/sewer, that Varna required its own plan. Additionally, there would be a zoning amendment that would help the community grow and develop while maintaining its character."
The hamlet of Varna has experienced little growth and development since the 1950s, allowing it to retain its quiet, rural-village character. The amendment to local zoning law, Article VII Hamlet of Varna Overlay, creates distinct overlays for the hamlet of Varna, along with rules relative to form and density of development within the water and sewer service areas, intended to regulate development and to retain the natural characteristics of Varna. Located between the City of Ithaca and the Village of Dryden, Varna is a community that residents have come to describe as a rural family hamlet. In the spring of 2011 the Dryden Planning Department proposed a Varna Community Development Plan in an effort to ensure future development is consistent with growth needs, zoning laws, and Varna retaining its "hamlet" distinction. The purpose of the Varna Community Development Plan is to serve as a guide for future development, provide opportunity for new uses, and improve the overall quality of life while protecting the character of the hamlet.
Nicholson says, "Traffic issues, the availability of water and sewer, and its unique location adjacent to Cornell and the Ithaca were all key factors in the plan. Not necessarily for redevelopment alone, but for new development and preservation."
Traditionally, water and sewer resources would not be likely in a rural hamlet distinctly separated from an urban area. However, Varna is included as part of the Ithaca Urbanized Area and the Town of Dryden is part owner of the water and sewer systems in the county. This has opened the door for increased density and development in Varna. This also creates fear among long-term residents that the character of the hamlet will be lost with new development.
Route 366, a state route that passes through the hamlet of Varna, can carry 9,000 cars a day. At peak times this can foster disturbance to residents, and the sometimes higher speeds create a real safety concern. This is due primarily to the lack of sidewalks and the orientation of the highway to a rural corridor design, rather than a residential hamlet design. Because of these three factors; the university, Route 366, and the water and sewer resources, the physical character of the hamlet is threatened by investment in rental housing, or large scale investment in development of the hamlet, which could potentially cause a dramatic shift in character. Again, the Department's main objective is to find the means for encouraging redevelopment and new development in the hamlet, but in a way that complements, continues and improves upon the current character.
Some of the remedies the Department proposes to achieve these ends include: Creating pocket parks, a central green around the church, and open plazas along Route 366 to compensate for the insufficient room for a large central park (greater than 1-2 acres); A series of small open and green spaces should be connected through pedestrian pathways. This can be accomplished through the completion of the Varna Trail, and multi-use paths that lead from Route 366 and connect with the Varna Trail; each new house or townhouse should face open, green space to encourage healthy, active living that is consistent with the existing character of the hamlet and by integrating a shared bike lane, cyclists and motorists will each have their designated lane which can help reduce the amount of accidents from bikes/cars intersecting in the roadway.
In addition, there are also several areas within the hamlet that are vacant and underutilized. These sites are prime candidates for development. They have immediate access to major roads and existing infrastructure. These sites can provide for new, desirable uses while enhancing the existing traditional neighborhood.
Community participation and input played a significant role in developing the plan.
Monthly meetings with the Varna Advisory Committee, a group of local residents who volunteered to help provide insight into the Varna community, as well as directly from residents in the community formed the basis of participation efforts. A community survey was distributed to 423 Varna area residents and business owners. Town staff and the advisory committee developed survey questions around six areas: demographics, quality of life, transportation, streets, housing, and development.
A public workshop was held on June 21, 2011 to engage residents in the design process. Planners created 3-D models of the community where participants could move and add buildings to create new development options. Thereafter, planners held an open house on November 2, 2011 to present the first draft plan to the public.
"It is necessary to strongly emphasize that community participation is a huge component of any planning process. This plan is not for the boards or the planners working on it. It is for the community and those that live, work and play here! Planners, especially those involved with this plan, went into this process extremely calculated in terms of community involvement. We held two public workshops - one in June, 2011 and one in November. We had an advisory group that was composed of Varna residents. We had a special meeting for business owners, and met with them individually. We sent out a community survey, and updated the website regularly to keep people informed. We presented the final plan to the residents this past May. It was extremely important to include all the community members with each step of the process. After all, this plan is for them! ... Varna is filled with passionate people that care about their community. They really love Varna and want to see it maintain its character through any changes that may occur in the future," said Nicholson.
In August 2012 the Planning Department presented the plan to the Planning Board for approval. The Board recommended the plan for submittal to the city council for ratification. Presently, certain preliminary aspects of the plan are being instituted and are laying the foundation for the proposed upgrades to the hamlet. The plan delineates a detailed timeline extending into 2022 to implement the recommended changes. The department has also identified viable state, local, and community based funding sources to finance the projected development. Nicholson is hopeful the Department will give its authorization to initiate the plan sometime this year. "Like any process, timelines can change. We are hoping to get it approved by the Board by the end of the year, but again, that can change based on a number of factors. Once approved, we will move into plan implementation!”