[Ed. Note: Data from HUD has been added to the web version of this story.]
The development pattern in Lansing allows it to be considered in three parts from south to north: (1) the Village of Lansing, carved out of the town in the 1970s in order to—in the face of construction of the “Pyramid Mall” (now the Shops at Ithaca Mall)—impose more regulation on local development; (2) the southern third of the town, which is a becoming a warren of subdivisions and cul de sacs; and (3) the northern, sparsely-populated farming community that still preserves an older version of settlement.
Nearly all the development in the town of Lansing is taking place in that southern third. It is difficult to count the number of units that are in the various stages between subdivision of parcels and construction. A request to Rachel Jacobson, the clerk of the Town of Lansing Planning Board, for a list of current projects yielded a spreadsheet with nine lines. These totaled 160 units, 102 of them accounted for by the proposed townhouses at “Cayuga Farms” off Warren Road. Further research—otherwise known as driving around and looking for construction sites—revealed other active sites that were not on the provided list, which was for paperwork processed during 2013 and part of 2014. Two developments going forward off Hillcrest Road—Woodland Park and Cayuga Way—account for approximately 120 additional units.
Perspective on the scale of this building boom can be found at city-data.com, which collects information on permits for new housing starts. Lansing has issued 22 permits in 2012 (the most recent data) with an average home price of $230,700. This is up from 6 in 2011, 9 in 2010 and 2008, 10 in 2006, and just 1 in 2004. This is double the numbers for most other towns in the county outside Ithaca. Ulysses, with 14 permits granted for new homes in 2012, comes the closest. In that year Groton had 12, Dryden had 11, Danby 10, Newfield 9, Enfield 5, and Caroline had none at all. The mean prices in all the towns (except Enfield) were substantially lower than Lansing’s average.
The online databases (socds.huduser.org) of the Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD) are a wealth of information. Their data is more up to date and more complete than that of city-data.com.
For the year 2013 the Village of Groton issued permits for 2 single-family homes and no multi-family buildings. The Town of Groton issued permits for 3 single-family homes and 2 multi-family homes.
The Village of Dryden issued 1 permit for a single-family home and 2 permits for multi-family properties. The Town of Dryden issued 15 permits for single-family homes and 2 for multi-family homes. (Freeville issued no permits.)
The Town of Ithaca was the busiest in the county (outside the city) with 25 single-family homes and 20 multi-family. Cayuga Heights, in contrast, issued only one building permit for a single-family home. The City of Ithaca issued only 2 permits for single-family homes, but 69 permits for multi-family homes.
None of the rest of the towns in the county issued permits for multi-family homes. Caroline issued 16 permits for single-family homes, Danby issued 10 permits, Newfield issued 8, Enfield 5 and Ulysses 3. The Village of Trumansburg issued 1 permit for a single-family home in 2013.
Finally, the Town of Lansing issued 19 permits for single-family homes and 10 for multi-family construction. In contrast, the Village of Lansing issued 4 permits for single-family home construction and none for multi-unit dwellings.
So, with a total of 29 permits for 2013, the town of Lansing is seeing nearly twice as much completed construction as its neighbor Dryden (which employs a full-time planner) and Caroline (which does not employ a planner).
Who is Building What?
Twenty-one new houses in a year doesn’t sound like a lot, but development is a long process, taking years. It is easy to find construction in Lansing. Just drive around. There are two projects—Woodland Park and Cayuga Way— are off Hillcrest Road. Both projects have been underway for more than two years, so neither one of them were included on the list provided by the planning board clerk. One is further along than the other, but both are custom building the houses, finishing them as they find buyers for them.
Cardamone Home Builders have been in business for 44 years. Steve Cardamone is in the business with his two sons. The elder Cardamone started building in Horseheads and then moved to Corning. There he built a subdivision called “Woodland Park.” He has given the same name to his new project in Lansing. Anewly paved road winds from Hillcrest to Warren Road through a former tree farm. In early October NYSEG was digging trenches and laying down gas and electric lines next to the road. Cardamone had already connected the new street into the sanitary sewer from Warren Road and run water mains.
When it is fully built out, Woodland Park will include 27 large single-family homes and a gated loop drive will be lined with 32 duplexes (64 units). The original Woodland Park in Corning was constructed for Corning Inc. executives.
The loop off Woodland Park will be Lansing’s first gated neighborhood. Why put up a gate? “Well,” said Cardamone, “you never know. People don’t think of gates until something goes wrong. Then everybody says, ‘Boy, I wish …’.”
Sixteen of the duplexes (they are 2,500 square-foot units) have been built, and all but one of them is occupied. They have been purchased mostly by retirees (medical professionals and Cornell staff), Cardamone said, who value the lack of maintenance responsibilities; Cardamone’s company also manages the properties, and he designs all the homes.
The builder said that the demand for new homes—at least his new homes—is good. “Once you have been in business for this many years, if you take care of your customers, the word spreads,” he said. “Some people live in our houses for five, 10, 15 years, and we’ll go back and take care of them for nothing. We keep everybody happy.”
Cardamone did not feel the effects of the Great Recession, and he agreed that this region was somewhat buffered by the presence of Cornell.
He has remained a builder of residential properties. He began with a single apartment complex in Horseheads and expanded from there. The houses he builds now are for “executives,” which he broadly defines to include doctors and surgeons who, he said, tend to know each other and recommend him to peers as a home builder to work with.
Each Cardamone home is custom-built. “It is nothing,” he said, “for me to talk to the buyer three or four times a day. Some buyers want to get really involved and some buyers don’t.” In the bathroom for the second-story master suite in one house, there is a picture window over the place where the jetted tub will eventually go. The spindles under the banister of the front stairs are black wrought iron bent to mimic lathed wood. Kitchen countertops are made of stone.
Depending on how they are finished, single-family homes in Woodland Park enter the market at between $600,000 and $900,000. The duplexes run over $400,000.
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The developers creating “Cayuga Way,” up the hill from Woodland Park, are quite different from Steve Cardamone and his sons, although they too are a family company. Whereas Cardamone is a local builder, the WB Property Group LLC, is a New York City-based real estate development and management company. According to Tompkins County Director of Assessment Jay Franklin, this is a trend in the area. Downstate developers are purchasing local properties for high prices.
Will Robinson, Field Operations Manager for R.B. Robinson Company of Candor, was on the site. His company had recently graded the road and they were preparing to pave it. The new road expands the Whispering Pines subdivision, looping around the north and west side of a hill. The south and east sides are already built out.
Robinson is a contractor for Robert Weinstein, Jr., who is in business with his father. Their office is at 495 Broadway in Manhattan.
According to the Candor contractor, the gas and electric utilities have been installed along half the length of the road. He pointed to a green box next to the still unpaved road, indicating that this was where NYSEG stopped work, and he did not know why they had not gone further. The water mains already run the full length of the street. This, said Robinson, is too far from the existing sewer system to hook in, and all the lots are well over an acre in order to accommodate septic systems.
The area is wooded, but the trees are small, perhaps 30 or 40 years old. Most of the trees are maples and tend to be all the same size, but with occasional much older “wolf trees” scattered through, suggesting that this was used as a pasture until the 1970s. Robinson predicted that “70 or 80 percent” of the trees on each lot would be removed in order to build the homes. Like the Cardamone homes, these will be custom-built.
The project was stalled for a year, according to Robinson, due to questions from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Construction had just resumed the previous week and the road was due to be paved later this month. According to the website for the development (cayugaway.com), the homes will start at $750,000.
Does Anyone Want to Talk About This?
Some members of the town board were asked to comment on the quantity of development in the town. Councilperson Robert Cree did not respond to an email message. Councilperson Edward LaVigne did respond. He disputed the amount of construction that was proposed or underway. In a May meeting Councilperson Dake spoke of 700 units being ready to hook up to sanitary system near Warren Road, but he did not specify whether they had been proposed, were under construction, or already built. LaVigne felt the volume of construction was being exaggerated, that much was proposed and much less was built.
When it was pointed that a project off Warren Road proposed by Lucente Homes accounted for 300 units, he responded: “Please try to sort out the proposed from the actually under construction. An excellent source of information would be Lynn Day, our code enforcement officer. He has been [employed by the town] for twelve years and knows the ‘proposed developments’ from the actual ‘to be constructed developments’.
“If the numbers are not even close to 700, LaVigne continued, “one might be inclined to pursue a ‘consultant for planning’ with no benefit package strapped to the taxpayers back forever.”
When the Ithaca Times called the town offices to speak with Day, we were told that he was too busy to speak with the media. Larry Sharpsteen, a member of the town planning board for over 30 years, was reached by phone and stated that it was his policy not to speak to the media because he was only one member of the board. Tom Ellis, chair of the board, could not be reached for comment.
• • •
Town Supervisor Kathy Miller is also the liaison from the town board to the planning board. Miller suggested that the Lucente development was the largest now underway. (It was not included in the listed sent from the town’s planning department.) The Village Apartments are to be built in three phases, 130 units in phase I, more than 100 units in phase II, and the balance in the final phase. (Pat Lucente said she did not have time to comment on the Village Apartments expansion.)
“It is a complex with pathways and a pullout for a bus stop,” said Miller. “It is a kind of a compound.” She said that this is not typical of residential development in the town and that most proposals were for single-family homes. (Melanie Garner, the senior rental agent at the Lucente complex, said they are in the process of building 12 new units, which should be ready by November. The one- or two-bedroom apartments are 1,000 square feet and rent for $1,150 to $1,450 per month. According to Garner, many of the residents work in the nearby Cornell Technology Park on Brown Road.)
Miller agreed with Cardamone about the effect of the Great Recession. “After 2008 the rate of development was maintained,” she said. “There was no major slowdown. Now it is accelerating a little.” But she confirmed LaVigne’s argument. “Sometimes there is a major subdivision,” she said, “and they don’t all get built.” It is all a very drawn out process because permits need to be granted for all the utilities, the roads, and for stormwater runoff before any building takes place at all.
“The roads are dedicated to the town,” Miller said, “even before the developer gets a permit.” Cardamone, however, having built the first gated neighborhood, has decided to maintain ownership of the road that goes by his Woodland Park duplexes.
How Much Planning is Needed?
Like Lansing, the Town of Ithaca granted 21 permits for new single-family homes in 2012. However, the planning department at the Town of Ithaca has a director of planning (who also has training in groundwater hydrology) and three planners on staff. The Town of Lansing doesn’t have a planning department at all.
The town board is divided into two factions regarding development. Miller and Councilperson Ruth Hopkins believe the town should employ a full-time planner. The balance of the town board, Cree, LaVigne, and the newest member, Doug Dake, believe that only a part-time consultant is necessary.
In 2013, before Dake was elected, a town board with a Democratic majority began a job search for a full-time planner, which they believed was necessary to maintain a handle on the widespread building of roads and houses.
At the time the town government was employing a planner, Jonathan Kanter, on a “part-time” basis. Town Supervisor Kathy Miller met him at a meeting of the New York Planning Federation and asked him to help the town. He had retired from his position as Director of Planning at the Town of Ithaca. Kanter spent about two years working for the Town of Lansing during which, Miller said, “he was putting in far more than the originally specified number of hours.” He recently moved to the Hudson Valley to take another position and when contacted, refused to comment on his time working for the Town of Lansing.
Last May, after the November 2013 election gave the town council a Republican majority, the board voted to discontinue the search. The incumbent Democrats—Miller and Hopkins—remained adamant that the volume of development required oversight by a trained full-time planner. After the vote in May, Councilperson Edward LiVigne said he felt that the planners employed by the developers would be sufficient. The newest member of the board, Councilperson Doug Dake, equated planning with the build-out of the sanitary sewage system and stated his belief that the department of public works had that aspect of development well in hand.
In the end, however, LaVigne, Cree, and Dake agreed to continue the search for a part-time planner, with Cree saying he knew of interested parties.
Miller continues to be firm in her belief that the town should employ a full-time planner. “We need someone to get grants, to do traffic studies, which are needed because of all the development,” she said. “We need to know what areas of the town can handle [new development]. No one on the staff has any expertise in grant writing.” She said that there are a lot of “internal projects” for a planner as well, including public relations work.
At an August town board meeting, Highway Superintendent Jack French described serious flooding problems on Waterwagon Road and Autumn Ridge Drive, which are both on the sloping land between North Triphammer Road and East Shore Drive. Floods had washed several driveways on Waterwagon and neighbors on Autumn Ridge were blaming each other for over-land flow and basement problems.
“Flooding is becoming more of a problem,” said Miller. “The storms are incredible and we have a lot more impervious surfaces with development. This is something that a planner can deal with. Some of them are stormwater gurus.”
Miller said that she was not concerned about the effect of new construction on flooding because she felt that the existing regulations, which have recently been updated, prevented problems. She was more worried about older developments where stormwater retention and discharge had not been systematically considered.
Repeated attempts at building a municipal sewer system in the town have failed. When they voted down the full-time planner position in May, councilpersons Cree, Dake, and LaVigne all stated that it should be left to developers to install sewers.
Miller, originally a proponent of a municipal sewage treatment plant, has given up on the idea. “We can attach to the Warren Road sewer line, which goes through the village [of Lansing] to Cayuga Heights,” said the Lansing town supervisor. “They have excess capacity. We would go to the city before we built our own treatment plant.”
The supervisor is also keen to see a new gas line run through Lansing from Dryden. She said that at present there is not enough natural gas to supply all the new developments that are planned.
Miller said that extension of the Bolton Point inter-municipal water system would be accomplished by creating water districts. The residents within the district would pay to construct the infrastructure, not the town as a whole. The paperwork associated with establishing a water district would be yet another task for a planner in the employee of the town.
“I hope the new fellow, once he starts to work,” said Miller of the part-time planner, “will say that he needs more hours.” •
Editor's note: The online text has been corrected to include permits for new houses in the town of Lansing in 2012. The original city-data.com number was for the village of Lansing (21 starts).