Ithaca town residents fight development
Rich DePaolo, chair of the Ithaca Town Board planning committee, looks at his computer at a recent meeting. (Photo by Taryn Thompson)

It has been an ongoing issue for almost 25 years.

Residents of Ithaca's North East corner continue to fight for the preservation of their neighborhood the way it stands now - without further development. But builder Rocco Lucente has been planning for the past two decades to construct a sequel just east of his Briarwood I, a strip of homes at the crossroads of Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary and Hanshaw Road.

The planned Briarwood II - currently no more than a preliminary sketch - has been the recipient of opposition from Lucente's neighbors, who argue that another development would wreak havoc on the environmental sensitivity of the area.

The North East Ithaca Neighborhood Association, specifically, has expressed contention regarding drainage problems and the preservation of wetlands as they related to Briarwood I and the earlyplanning stages of Briarwood II.

In the 1993 Town of Ithaca Comprehensive Plan, the whole area was held out as a possible conservation zone. In 2004, the Town Codes and Ordinances Committee visited this issue about whether a conservation zone should be implemented there and decided to cover the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary - not including the rest of the North East.

"At that time, I don't think most of us in the North East even knew that this was under consideration," said Bill Sonnenstuhl, a NEINA member. "If we had been, we probably would have weighed in on the issue."

In 2006, the Town of Ithaca Planning Board held public hearings on Briarwood II, at which point North East residents provided testimony against the proposal.

"The chair said, 'I've got the votes for letting this go ahead,' and after that we kept appealing to the Town Planning Board without much recourse," Sonnenstuhl said. "So we did take our concerns to the Town Board, who graciously listened to us for several months."

The Town Board decided to commission a study of whether the conservation zone should be extended, the final report of which was submitted and discussed in the Fall of 2008. The research and report was conducted by LeCain Environmental Services, Inc.

"The study showed how much of this area has habitat that is of moderate to high ecological value, and goes beyond simply the borders of the wetlands," said NEINA member Adrian Williams said. "Putting in these houses would annihilate that portion of woodlands."

Since then, there have been two extensions of a building moratorium. Town Supervisor Herb Engman said the latest moratorium has been extended until Dec. 20 in order to allow the board more time to review new information about the ecological nature of the North East area, which continues to mount.

NEINA member and landscape architect Patricia Page said the North East problems of water retention and storm water runoff lie deep within the soils native to this area. According to the Tompkins County Soil Survey, a resource that defines soils and their characteristics, these soils are not appropriate for housing.

NEINA also argues that the health and vitality of wetlands in the area is also under dire threat and that woodland destruction is due to the continuous implementation of housing units over the past few decades.

Earlier this month, the Town Board presented to NEINA possible solutions to mitigate the damage done to personal property. But the costs were hefty, and Sonnenstuhl said the construction tug-of-war endures.

"While the $9.3 million price tag for addressing problems was a shocker, the retention costs of the Town and neighborhood should convince any skeptic that our water problems are serious," he said.

"In addition, the $9.3 million price tag to solve our water problems also highlights the need to ensure that any future development in the North East not contribute to existing problems," Sonnenstuhl added. "For this reason, we continue to support the extension of the existing conservation zone, as recommended in the LeCain study.

An extension of the conservation zone would permit very low-density housing while preserving the area's ecological features, "which are essential for mitigating water problems in the rest of the neighborhood," he said.

"We would like to continue working with the Town to find less costly solutions," Sonnenstuhl said. "We also support exploring other options for preserving the woodlands and wetlands in this area."

This spring, Cornell University engaged Lucente in discussions regarding how a land swap would actually achieve this goal. Those negotiations were inconclusive, so NEINA hosted a meeting with Cornell, Lucente and the town board last Wednesday to try and move the university and Lucente back to the table. Again the discussions were inconclusive.

On Thursday, NEINA gave a presentation to the Town of Ithaca Planning Committee with their thoughts on the extension of the conservation zone. The result was a decision of the Planning Committee to move a recommendation to the Town Board to consider a conservation zone.

"You could have the moratorium expire while we're working on the conservation zone or amending our zoning laws," said Town Attorney William Goodman.

Planning Committee Chair Rich DePaolo said the LeCain study provides justification for pursuing the conservation zone in this area. But the committee is still wrestling with the issue.

"I want to dispel the myth from my own opinion that the conservation zone was ever off the table," DePaolo said. "In my mind it certainly remains an option. We've had three possible solutions available: one is a land swap that would have prevented development, one is a conservation zone and one is a development. Any of those three things could happen."

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