A previous version of this article stated that the auction for the Bell Station property was originally scheduled for Sept. 20. The correct date is Sept. 15, not Sept. 20. The Ledger regrets the error.
Michael Jamison, senior manager of corporate communications for NYSEG, stated Sept. 1 that the company will go through with its planned auction of the Bell Station, even though it has received requests for cancelation from the Finger Lakes Land Trust and thousands of Tompkins County residents.
“In the interest of transparency and fairness, and understanding that there are a lot of stakeholders with a lot of varying opinions on it, the company made the decision that the fairest and most transparent way to deal with the property was to hold an auction for it where everybody had the chance to bid and purchase the property,” Jamison said. “So that’s what we’re ultimately moving forward with.”
One of those stakeholders is the Finger Lakes Land Trust, which for the past eight to 10 years has acted as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYSDEC) agent in acquiring the 470-acre property that features 3,400 feet of shoreline on the east side of Cayuga Lake. Executive Director Andrew Zepp said he was more surprised with the way the auction is being marketed rather than the auction itself.
“We were under the impression that it was going to be sold for energy production purposes,” Zepp said. “We thought we would have an opportunity to work with whoever acquired it to strike the appropriate balance of conserving the shoreline and providing for solar. This is a very different situation where it’s clearly being marketed for residential development whereby the public access opportunity would be lost as would the renewable energy opportunity.”
The listing on Ten-X states in the description that “the property is a perfect candidate for potential waterfront residential development with agricultural secondary use and recreational forestry/tertiary use.” The prospect of the property being auctioned off and the winning bidder constructing a residential development poses environmental risks.
“The entire shoreline is wooded hillside that if it's up for development [there] would be clearing on state slopes, which as we see these more intense rain events we’re having, leads to more runoff into the lake,” Zepp said.
Such an outcome would also thwart opportunities for providing public access to the property’s shoreline and planning solar energy development on the eastern portion of it.
“At a time when we see — particularly during the pandemic — more and more people appreciating getting out to our parks and conservation land, that we have a capacity issue,” Zepp said. “Taughannock State Park, for example, lately has been closed because the parking lot is full. So we do not have enough areas to allow the public to get out and enjoy these places.”
“Our position is that the public good will be best served in the long term by NYSEG and its ratepayers being compensated through a fair market value process, but also that the end result is this combination of conservation, renewable energy and public access,” he said. “That’s where we think the auction, as presented, is not in the public interest.”
(The Town of Lansing’s Comprehensive Plan designates Bell Station as “future public access conservation land.” In addition, the property is categorized as a “priority” in the NYSDEC’s 2016 Open Space Plan as one of several protection projects along the Finger Lakes shorelines.)
The public has made it clear that it would like to see the auction be cancelled as well. A petition titled “Stop the Auction! Create a Public Access Land Preserve at Bell Station, Lansing, New York” on change.org, started by Lansing resident Robert Rieger, has garnered over 3,200 signatures as of Sept. 7. Several Lansing residents expressed their concerns at a mobile office hours meeting with Sen. Pamela Helming at the Town Hall on Aug. 25. At that meeting, Helming shared her support of having the auction cancelled.
“My concern is … that I hate to see that property sold to the highest bidder and become a large-scale residential development,” Helming said that Wednesday. “Especially, I know a lot of you like to talk about the lakeside, but to me it’s all about the hillsides too, right? Because whatever is happening on those hills will flow down into the lake [and] impact water quality.”
A potential situation like the one above would conflict with NYSEG’s list of standards pertaining to the environment it abides on the company’s website. For instance, under “Environmental Stewardship,” the NYSEG states it conducts its “business and facility operations in a manner that minimizes adverse environmental impacts on present and future generations.” Another example would be found under “Environmental Policy,” where the company states it “incorporate[s] environmental impact considerations into decision-making processes concerning existing and future operations.”
The auction was originally scheduled for Sept. 15, but has since been rescheduled to take place online from Oct. 11 to 13 with the bidding starting at $750,000. Though the hope is still to have the auction canceled, Zepp said the land trust plans on registering if that is not the case.
The Lansing Town Council will hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 8 to consider giving the Conservation Advisory Council authorization to write a letter supporting an intervention by the NYSDEC to acquire the property and establish a publicly accessible conservation area on it.