If you drive up Route 366 past Cornell University toward the town of Dryden, about a mile past the university you descend a short hill into the valley of Fall Creek. There you encounter some mobile homes, and a few older houses strung along the highway. A little farther, you will drive past an array of modest businesses: Bell’s Auto Care, Varna Auto, Strebel Financial Management, the Embassy Inn, Savage Creek Hair Salon, Prolawn Landscaping, and Antlers restaurant.
You are passing through the hamlet of Varna, an unincorporated portion of the town of Dryden. To some, this area is nothing more than a place to commute to work from. To others, it is home. To developers and town planners, it offers more to the imagination.
More than 10 years ago, amid the revision of its own comprehensive plan, the Town of Dryden also created a separate comprehensive plan for Varna. The latter was completed in 2012. It is now 2016 and Varna looks—for all intents and purposes—the same as it did four years ago, not to mention much farther back than that.
This could change in the near future. That’s the plan, anyway.
Developer and co-founder of Modern Living Rentals Charlie O’Connor, Modern Living Rentals strategist Todd Fox, and Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative are currently waiting to receive a final site plan approval from the Dryden town board for their latest proposal: a 10-unit, 32-bedroom townhouse building at 902 Dryden Rd, which sits at the corner of Forest Home Drive and Route 366.
It would essentially be the first thing you see on your left in Varna, if you are coming from Cornell University.
O’Connor’s team has been attending town board meetings for the last six months. Most of these meetings have been contentious. A few people attended each of these meetings to stress their concerns. Varna resident Cheryl Humerez is the most vocal of the group, as she is representing herself, her husband Eric, and speaking on behalf of in-laws who live at 904 Dryden Rd. Humerez herself resides two houses down the road.
In addition to Humerez, other neighboring residents are voicing concerns about the project. Director of Natural Areas for Cornell Plantations Todd Bittner broke down—on several occasions—issues with the project as its proximity impinges on valued natural resources.
“Two of Cornell Plantations managed natural areas, Park Park and Fall Creek,” Bittner said, “are immediately adjacent to the proposed 902 Dryden Road development. These natural areas are open to the public, provide research and educational learning opportunities, and help protect sensitive plant and wildlife habitat, including significant stretches of Fall Creek, the source of Cornell University’s water supply. Any loss of [shoreline] habitat or development within the floodplain, as the original 902 Dryden Road project proposed, would have had negative environmental impacts on sensitive areas and public use.”
“Development and natural resource conservation,” he continued, “should not be mutually exclusive from one another, and to that end, we credit the developers for modifying their original plans to reduce the resource impacts to the floodplain and [shoreline] habitats. We have yet to review any formally submitted revisions, including a stormwater management plan and the siting of the detention basin, but would hope that the final proposal would meet the previously articulated goal of having no additional stormwater run-off than is current and that stormwater retention would be provided outside of the Fall Creek floodplain.”
O’Connor and his team took all of this feedback seriously. Their original proposal had called for 15 townhomes and 40 bedrooms; they reduced the size of it to decrease any intrusion into the floodplain.
“We were just trying to listen to everything everyone was saying,” O’Connor said. “You don’t always necessarily agree with people and their reasoning, but you have to be sympathetic to it. So you had some residents concerned with the size and number of bedrooms. You had Todd Bittner who had some real legitimate concerns from a stormwater standpoint, so we were very sensitive to that. Because this is kind of the first project that’s going in there, we got the sense that we were going to have to scale it back just so people could feel comfortable about it.”
Dryden’s town board will vote on the 902 Dryden Rd project’s site plan on Thursday, Feb. 18. Because newly appointed Town Supervisor Jason Leifer actually helped close the sale of the property a few years ago, he has recused himself from the vote. Consequently, all four remaining town board members need to vote yes for approval.
“There are a lot of people watching this project,” said Fox, “and you can only imagine what will happen if this gets shot down. I have a hard time imagining anyone else will spend the time and money that we did trying to get something approved, and have something get denied even though the zoning allows for it. We’ve talked about this over the last few months: had we known we would be spending the time, energy and money that we have, we never in a million years would have pursued this project.”
Varna’s comprehensive plan calls for change. There are, however, Varna residents who only want so much change to occur.
“We bought our property on the grounds that it was a rural area,” Humerez said. “There are places in Varna that could be developed, that are more appropriate for this type of thing: the corner of Freese Road, Mount Pleasant, and Route 366, for example. Some of the broken-down houses would be great for redevelopment. To me, it’s always been location, location, location, and it’s not even a matter of it not being right [next door]. It’s a matter of certain areas could use that kind of development, and others can’t.”
O’Connor was caught off guard by the amount of negative feedback his proposal received. His team had another project proposed at the corner of Dryden and Freese roads before this. That project got nixed “because there was a ton of fill. There was like 15 feet of fill that was unstable, so you couldn’t even really build on it.”
This time, however, the problems seem to be less technical, and more personal.
“We definitely did not anticipate this much controversial feedback,” he said, “just because of the zoning. It was actually kind of shocking that we got the pushback that we did.
“It definitely [is an example of ‘not in my backyard’],” O’Connor added. “We’ve actually heard the Humerezes say, ‘This is a great project, just not next to us. Not in this area.’ They wanted it further down. We’ve heard other residents say similar things.”
The Varna Comprehensive Plan
Varna’s comprehensive plan is accessible to anyone who wants to read it. It is readily available on the Town of Dryden’s website. The 78-page document is well structured, clearly written, and colorful.
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. The town received 131 surveys back, a 31-percent return rate (which is regarded as quite good). The survey results indicated that 40 percent of respondents had lived in Varna for more than 20 years. Over half of the respondents own their own home.
Some of the concerns that residents voiced included opposing “too much development, too fast and changing the character of the hamlet from a quaint, rural area to a transient, strip-development corridor with significant traffic.”
The plan opens with a brief history of Varna.
“In the 1950s,” it states, “Varna has all the components of a traditional village: two churches, a post office, school, tavern, hotel, dance hall, grocery store and a carriage shop which was later converted to a garage and gas station. [Later] In the 1950s, Varna experienced several changes. The railroad that was used to connect the hamlet to larger communities and markets suspended service; the rail depot was privately purchased and converted into small houses.”
The plan notes that little growth and development has taken place from the 1950s to the Varna we know today: “Varna is unique in that it provides the comfort of a small-town village with immediate access to the conveniences of a city. Its proximity to neighboring Cornell and Ithaca makes Varna a desirable community for students, professors and young professionals.” The document provides “residents, business owners, and developers with a more detailed vision for the future of the community, and provides for a more informed consideration of future development proposals.”
The plan identifies three areas for redevelopment and development: the intersection of Route 366 and Freese Road, the “Varna II, LLC” parcel adjacent to the old railroad bed (both are shown in light purple on the map on p. 8), and residential redevelopment areas that exist along the north side of Route 366, and along Freese Road down to the bridge over Fall Creek.
O’Connor’s 902 Dryden Road proposal fits the plan, Dryden Town Planner Ray Burger said.
“It’s definitely the kind of project we saw for that space,” he said.
The Future of Varna
As Fox said, Varna’s immediate outlook could hinge on the 902 Dryden Road vote on Feb. 18. An approval would officially put the master plan into motion. A denial could be a significant step back. Leifer said he wasn’t surprised there is hesitation to go through with the plan even though the plan was heavily supported during its conception.
Within the plan, types of development the community participants said they liked are included and a “townhouse development on Forest Home Drive” is literally the first idea mentioned.
“When we developed the plan,” Leifer said, “the Varna community was heavily involved. There were multiple meetings about this plan in the community center where everything was talked about and rolled out. I think what’s going on is when the plan was developed, it was all conceptual and now things are actually happening. That’s always a game changer in a way: now things are real.”
Other development ideas the community participants in the planning liked were townhouses along Dryden Road dubbed “Varna Hollow” and the Varna Commons: a “village-green-type development with open space at the center of the development with cottage homes, professional offices/businesses, and townhouses surrounding the green.” The latter is planned for the intersection of Route 366, Freese Road and Mount Pleasant Road, or “developed as a PUD” dubbed “Gateway Plaza,” an example that represents “a mixed-use development with green space” with a site design that includes mixed uses on the first floor, residences or offices on the second floor, facing a “park-like green on both corners.”
“Some of the plan calls for mixed-use residential structures,” Leifer explained. “Although it didn’t happen on this particular project, that’s what we’re looking for going forward. We don’t want to have [all residential]. The idea is to, in the end, have a walkable community.”
Whether or not Varna becomes a walkable hamlet with downtown qualities, only time will tell. One thing is for sure: its location will likely always have residents, developers and politicians dreaming about what could be, or what could have been.
“The location is perfect,” Leifer noted, “because it’s right on the bus route. It’s a place where, if you’re going to have more, if you’re going to have a densely packed community, people can access a bus line that runs on a regular basis. It’s not one of the lines that come out once or twice a day. It comes out a few times a day so people really can rely on mass transit.”
Varna offers several attractive qualities from a developer’s point of view.
“Look at the proximity to Cornell, the area’s largest employer,” said Fox. “You have a ton of faculty and staff that need housing. Then you look at the proximity to the agriculture and veterinary schools, so you’ll get a mix of students too.”
There seems to be optimism from O’Connor’s team that their site plan will be approved on Feb. 18. If they get approval, they hope to break ground on the project this year, and reach near completion. If they don’t get approval, it is unlikely ground would be broken this year, even if they got their proposal approved at a later date.
The Modern Living Rentals team is not the only one optimistic about the latest 902 Dryden Rd. proposal. Burger, the Dryden town planner, is a noted fan of the plan. He sees not only this plan getting approved, but predicts it will be the first of several new Varna developments.
“I think the commercial businesses,” Burger, said, “are just waiting for there to be some kind of critical mass to assemble there. There have been a handful of other developers in recent months—at least four—looking at various properties in Varna vetting different ideas, and there’s potential there for more plans to be proposed [in the near future]. I think once we reach some kind of critical mass—which I don’t think is far off—the commercial businesses are going to especially start looking at the Freese Road-Route 366 intersection. It’s got a lot of potential.
“I don’t see any big obstacles [to developing Varna],” Burger added. “I think it’s going to happen. •