The vision for what the town of Ithaca will be has changed. After more than seven years, and hundreds of hours of meetings, the 2014 Town of Ithaca Comprehensive Plan was adopted during a Monday, Sept. 8 town board public meeting. The new plan comes 21 years after the town’s first official comprehensive plan was issued in 1993. Before that, the town’s plan was included in an all-encompassing vision shared with neighboring communities such as Cayuga Heights and Lansing.

According to the 2014 comprehensive plan’s introduction, the 1993 plan made protection of the town’s agricultural lands, natural lands and environment a “high priority.” The 2014 plan will also place a “strong foundation for protecting the town’s open space and working farmlands.” However its legacy will most likely be tied to its intent of “ensuring that land is used more efficiently and that development is done more thoughtfully.” The major theme of the 2014 comprehensive plan is adding dense development in designated areas. 

“I think it’s true,” Town Supervisor Herb Engman said, “that we’re really looking for increased density, especially in certain areas of the town. Part of it is trying to indicate where development might best take place. One of the weaknesses I saw [in the town’s approach to environmental development] is that we always opposed certain projects, but we never proposed where growth could take place with the least amount of environmental damage. I think that’s a lot of what this plan does. We saw growth should take place in a couple different areas, and that there would be higher density in those areas. That has the effect of taking pressure off the rest of the town, so it does—in my mind—preserve open culture and scenic views.”

While the 2014 plan is a huge part of determining how the town will be developed in coming years, it won’t have too much impact until new zoning is crafted. That zoning—which could take a few years to complete in its own right—will be the town’s next project to tackle, and will be created under the umbrella of the comprehensive plan. 

The biggest change will be a shift from conventional—or Euclidean—zoning to form-based zoning. Though established development throughout the town will likely remain more or less unaffected, the designated locations for “new neighborhoods” are supposed to incorporate formed-based zoning, said Engman and Town of Ithaca Director of Planning Sue Ritter.

“We’re talking more about different types of zoning and mixed uses,” Ritter explained. “Zoning we had in previous areas was all use-based, and therefore now, we have certain places that are residential in one spot and commercial places in another spot—we didn’t mix them. In addition, in some residential areas, you can only have single-family homes. Now we recognize that that kind of development is not good; it doesn’t provide quality development. So we want to be able to mix lot sizes, mix different types of housing, and add some commercial components within a neighborhood.”

The new comprehensive plan’s “Future Land Use Plan” classifies the town into the following categories: Natural/Open, Rural/Agricultural, Semi-Rural Neighborhood, Established Neighborhood, Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) Medium Density, Activity Areas, Campus, and TND High Density. The last is a subcategory that falls under “focus areas,” which are described as “locations with unique characteristics and opportunities for development and redevelopment” and is intended to be the setting for dense mixed-use neighborhoods. These locations include East Hill Plaza and South Hill Center. 

TND Medium Density, described as a place “intended to be the setting for compact mixed-use neighborhoods” includes the West Hill area and the South Hill area in the vicinity of Ithaca College. In short—in time—West Hill, South Hill and East Hill Plaza are the areas Ithacans are most likely to see the town change before their eyes.

“The 1993 plan,” Ritter said, “was the first really independent plan that the town created. That plan focused quite a bit on open-space protection and farmland protection. We continue, in [the 2014 plan], to protect open space. But what we do differently, in my mind now, is [focus] more on the built environment, the neighborhoods, and the areas that are built, and the area surrounding those places, to make them somewhere where people are proud to live and work at.”

Why Did It Take So Long?

There is really no time limit for how long a comprehensive plan for a city or town should take. Obviously, most people prefer to get things accomplished in a timely matter. That said, others prioritize their own vision, or opinion, over everything else. That dynamic can drag out a process for literally years. Just ask town officials who witnessed the 2014 comprehensive plan get filtered through a comprehensive plan committee and the town board. If nothing else, the process was thorough. 

In 2007 the town decided it was time to look at the 1993 plan and whether or not it needed to be revised, or completely rewritten. After concluding that the latter was necessary in 2008, it took until Sept. 8, 2014 to complete the process.

“I think one of the major reasons [that it took seven years to complete],” Engman said, “is that we recruited very opinionated people. They had lots of ideas, and we had those that were more in favor of increased development, and we had those that didn’t want any more development at all. Consequently it took a while to pare down what the majority, at least, wanted. After a few years, it wasn’t an attempt to create something that everybody liked—it was what everyone could live with.”

In February 2013 the board determined that the adoption of the proposed comprehensive plan could have significant impact on the environment, thus making a State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) necessary. The town board approved the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) portion of the SEQR in August, and the environmental finding statement approval was the final step in what has been a long process.

The findings statement of the environmental review identifies the social and economic, as well as environmental, considerations that have been weighed in making a decision to approve or disapprove an action. Although the town board unanimously adopted the resolution to adopt the comprehensive plan, the vote to approve the environmental findings statement, also held on Sept. 8, did not go through as swimmingly.

Board members Tee-Ann Hunter and Rich DePaolo abstained from voting. Both cited that the process for the findings statement and the comprehensive plan as a whole had become a rushed process in which the majority of the board simply wanted to move forward. DePaolo, who claimed he could complain about something on every page of the 18-page findings statement document, noted that he had somewhere to be at 10 p.m. Monday night and said his objections and corrections to the findings statement “wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference anyway.” After he used these concerns as a valid reason to abstain from voting, Hunter said she had similar feelings.

DePaolo, in an interview with the Ithaca Times, elaborated on why he felt the comprehensive plan was not ready to move forward.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “In order to have a zoning code, you need to have a comprehensive plan. That’s the first step on the road to what we hope will be a sensible zoning code. But the comprehensive plan, in part, illustrates what part of the town will be slated for certain types of development. In our case we decided that we would like to ‘densify’ certain areas of the town, and open up opportunities for mass transit. The problem is you need to create a zoning code that enables that to happen. 

“The big catch,” he continued, “as I see it, is that that analysis that we have for the plan—the entire environmental review process—compares the new plan to what we already have. And so there’s a lot of statements in that review and the environmental review findings statement that say no significant environmental impact is expected compared to the 1993 plan—or something to that effect. The problem is, unless you create a zoning ordinance that builds certain areas, and downsizes other areas, you’re going to have what you have now, plus higher density areas. So essentially you’re just going to create more development. You’re going to have the sprawl, the nodes—and that’s a real problem.”

Town of Ithaca Senior Planner Dan Tasman said dissent throughout a comprehensive plan process, which he noted was “really hard to describe,” is to be expected. Tasman joined the comprehensive plan process after he was hired in 2011. Before coming to Ithaca, Tasman was the planning director for the city of Hutto, Texas, a suburb of Austin. It was there where he won an award for zoning legislation. While he hopes to have similar success in the town of Ithaca, he realizes there will be differing opinions from intelligent people along the way.

“It’s something that you have with every comprehensive plan,” he said. “You’re dealing with people that have different ideals on what they want to see out of the town. Even in our planning staff—we have different ideals, to an extent, of what we’d like to see. Same goes to the town board: if you ask [everyone involved] what the most important thing about the plan is, you’re going to get a different answer.”

Flying In The Form-Based Zone

Currently the Town of Ithaca has conventional zoning, which is also known as Euclidean zoning, because each separate use creates a polygon on a map. The town’s upcoming zoning revision, which will be written with reference to the 2014 Comprehensive Plan, will include a formed-based approach. The difference, Tasman explained, is flexibility in development after land has been designated for certain uses.

“Conventional zoning, or Euclidean zoning,” he said, “mainly focuses on the use of land, whether it’s residential, commercial, industrial, an so on. But it’s much less specific about the form that it should be developed in. So you might have a building envelope where you can build a building anywhere in that zone, but each property is treated individually, and it doesn’t necessarily result in a coherent whole. The uses are predictable, but the form not so much. What form-base zoning does is it places more of an emphasis on the form the development takes—[what] do you want the neighborhood to look like? Uses are secondary, and are therefore more flexible than conventional zoning.”

An example of how form-base zoning could have a dramatic impact on the town of Ithaca in the coming years is the proposed Chain Works District on South Hill. Unchained Properties of Horseheads hopes to redevelop and rehabilitate more than 800,000-square foot Morse Chain/Emerson Power Transmission facility, which is located on a 95-acre parcel straddling the boundary of the city and town of Ithaca. To do that in a manner that is beneficial to the city, the town, and the developer, a creative mix of residential, commercial and industrial uses would need to be implemented. That type of development would require form-based zoning. Engman said that type of zoning—in certain areas of the town—would be “very, very positive.”

“It would sort of get back to,” he said, “the old way of doing things, where you have neighborhoods that had a little grocery store and other amenities in the neighborhood and right at your fingertips. That way, you don’t find yourself need to drive 10 minutes for a gallon of milk.”

The Next 20-Plus Years

According to the introduction of the 2014 Comprehensive Plan, the plan is “intended to provide ways for the town of Ithaca to achieve its vision of where it wants to be in the next 10 to 20 years.” A big part of making sure this plan achieves its goals, will be securing a sustainable future. Engman said densifying the town in the right places, along with maintaining and adding to its extensive trailways, will be a big part of making sure the plan accomplishes what it sets out to do. 

“How do we sustain what people value in the town of Ithaca,” he asked, “for the next 20 or 30 years? I think we’re looking at that a little bit more because we don’t want just any kind of economic development. The other thing that we’re looking at is walk-ability and bike-ability, and that’s tough, because some of our streets in this town are so constrained. But we want people to be able to walk and bike to work whenever possible. Part of that is to try to mitigate the damage from increased traffic. It doesn’t make any difference whether people live in the town or further out—they’re going to come through the town of Ithaca to get to work. So the closer we can put our population to the edge of the city to give them the options of walking, biking and busing, the more we can cut down on that traffic, and go a little while longer without gridlock in the town.”

Though residents should be mindful that change within the town is indeed on the way, those panicking about the town of Ithaca becoming unrecognizable any time soon need not. 

“Ithaca, even though it’s a growing community,” Tasman said, “the growth rate is fairly slow, so [new development] won’t be immediate. You’re not going to see neighborhoods transform overnight. Most of the existing neighborhoods in town—you’re really not going to see many changes. In some areas, you will see redevelopment, for instance South Hill, and the area around King Road and Danby Road. Over the long term, that will emerge as a mixed-use neighborhood. The plan envisions East Hill redeveloping, or what’s sometimes called ‘suburban retrofitting.’ Going from the typical suburban shopping center to really, a more complete neighborhood. The big changes will be new development—and that will take a very long time.”

In any event, town officials concurred that any residents looking to educate themselves on the town’s future can do so without reading a novel. The 2014 Comprehensive Plan is readily available on the town’s website, www.town.ithaca.ny.us and the plan can be found under “Documents.” Engman noted the town took readers’ time into account when crafting the document.

“If residents just want to get a feeling for the plan,” he said, “they can read [the five-page introduction], which says where we’ve been and where we’re trying to go.  And then the gist of the plan is about 80 or 90 more pages. It sounds like a lot, but a lot of it is appendices, and we did that deliberately. We wanted this to be more user friendly than some of the other comprehensive plans out there.” •

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