815 South Aurora St rendering

Renderings from the 815 South Aurora Street proposal. 

As the students make their annual trip back to Ithaca before the school semester begins, a legal battle may be brewing to stop the development plans of another student rental spot on South Hill. 

The proposed project, which would be built at 815 S. Aurora St., is currently before the Planning Board, which may opt to give the plan final site plan approval at its meeting this week (which will take place after press time for this print edition—check this story online for an update). But the board has also been named as a defendant in the lawsuit, filed by neighbors of the project last week, that seeks to appeal the board’s decision to award the plan preliminary site plan approval in July. 

The proposal calls for three buildings at the site, which would hold 66 units and 150 beds of student housing once they are constructed. 

Developers Visum Development, the City of Ithaca, Common Council, other city bodies and other parties associated with the project are all named as defendants alongside the Planning Board. The plaintiffs are listed as Brian Grout, Susanne Dennis and James Rogan, who are being represented by local attorney Russell Maines. All three own property adjacent to the project’s site on South Aurora Street. 

Among other charges, the suit alleges that the Planning Board “violates the petitioner’s rights and threaten the health, safety and welfare of their residential neighborhood,” language that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the anti-student rental efforts from South Hill residents over the last few years. 

The suit asks that the project be precluded from final site plan approval until the lawsuit is resolved, vacating the Planning Board’s preliminary site plan approval on the grounds that it was “arbitrary and capricious” (the general standard for Article 78 legal actions seeking relief) and arguing that the Planning Board did not follow proper protocol to determine the project’s environmental impact (which it gave a “negative declaration;” in other words, the project will not have a significant environmental impact, according to the board), focusing on the increase in impervious surfaces the project will bring. It further alleges a variety of procedural violations, like that the preliminary site plan approval could not have been validly granted given that variances, which are often approved by the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), had not been applied for or reviewed by the BZA, etc. The residents have also argued that allowing a gathering area, like the project’s parking lot, in the “fall zone” of a cell phone tower, which is the case in this project, violates city code. 

Planning Board Chair Robert Lewis deferred comment to Lisa Nicholas, the city Planning Department’s deputy planning director, who said she couldn’t comment. A request for comment to City Attorney Ari Lavine went unanswered, as did a request for comment from Visum head Todd Fox. 

“These are good people,” said Mike Belmont, who is acting as the plaintiffs’ spokesperson in the matter. “I’m sure the Visum people are good people too. This isn’t an issue over good folks and bad folks. It’s about what are the best practices that comply with the kind of municipal codes and regulations [...] and consider fully the environmental impact of a project.”

The project hasn’t been free of controversy before now, as it has drawn ire throughout the planning process for being ill-placed and unnecessary, in the words of critics, some of whom are surely now involved in this lawsuit. As mentioned before, there’s also long-simmering anger over what South Hill residents have repeatedly called the “student rental creep” that has slowly eliminated their family neighborhood.

Other developments in the area have been the subject of lawsuits, so this sort of suit isn’t totally unprecedented. To cite one example from earlier this year, the DeWitt House project, at the Old Library site on Cayuga Street, was the subject of a last-minute Article 78 suit during the uproar over that project’s asbestos remediation tactics. The remediation continued, and the suit was withdrawn a month later.

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