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Objections to “Cayuga Village”

Below are several letters sent via the West Hill email list (“listserv”) opposing the planned sale of Tompkins County property for the purpose of a housing development (tentatively) called “Cayuga Village.” Unavoidably, this is a long post, but we feel it’s best to keep the letters together in one place. (Pro-Cayuga Village opinions are in Advocating “Cayuga Village.”) Both viewpoints will have messages added as they arrive.

  • 1. Dave Nutter
  • 2. Andrejs Ozolins
  •  3. Sophie Zapala
  • 4. George and Linda Kobas
  • 5. George Frantz
  • 6. Peter A. Forlano
  • 7. Dan Hoffman
  • 8. Pat Dutt
  • 9. Tish Perlman

1. Dave Nutter

Dear County Legislators:

I praise the good intentions of the proponents, but I urge you to vote against selling the Biggs property for the “Cayuga Village” housing project because it is flawed on many levels. Despite their claims, it is a poor Climate Showcase, it is not Pedestrian-Oriented, it has hidden costs which make it far less Affordable, and it will not serve our Community or its Housing Needs.

Climate change is a real problem requiring actual reductions in greenhouse gas production, which means creating housing where people won’t need cars, not building more housing beyond the outskirts of town, then claiming a benefit on the grounds that practices have been worse while we continue to add to the carbon burden.

Consider the project location.Who will walk 3 miles up a 500 foot climb from the nearest grocery, especially when the sidewalk only goes half the distance? Residents of this development, just like the rest of suburban sprawl, will depend on motor vehicles for all basic needs, which makes this housing both far less Affordable and a poor Climate Showcase. Buses from Trumansburg are already full when they go past in the morning. Buying buses and hiring drivers are big expenses for TCAT. If renters were already employed within Tompkins County, and they moved here from adjacent counties to shorten their commute, or if they worked at the medical complex, then greenhouse gas production might be reduced from current levels. But developers could not make either of those assurances. Instead at the information session they said they plan to market to professors and retirees. This will add to traffic and pollution on West Hill and Downtown, and not serve the needs of the West Hill community, nor the long-commuting working poor.

Consider the land use. Forest, which is a cooling carbon sink, will be cut down, releasing carbon. New parking lots, which turn sunlight into heat, will be built literally across the street from existing unused parking lots, old buildings, and large areas of mowed lawn. The irony would be funnier if this destructive practice weren’t held up as an example of what to do. There’s a better argument for developing housing just for people connected to the medical complex and on the land which the County already sold to the Cayuga Medical Center. That would be a smarter cooperative project more worth showing off. All of the forest should be saved instead of pretending it’s good to cut part of it down.

Even the name “Cayuga Village” is not well thought-out. There is already a Village of Cayuga and a Village of Cayuga Heights on the opposite side of the lake.

County and Town officials deserve praise for wanting to help the climate, the community, and housing needs, but just because the County owns a parcel of land, that doesn’t mean it’s a good place to accomplish those goals. The best thing to do for the environment, for the community, and for workers is to support efforts to build affordable, energy-efficient housing in the flats of Ithaca’s Downtown.

2. Andrejs Ozolins

I have to raise my strong opposition to this plan. If the Cayuga Village were being proposed in 1955, when the development future looked limitless, electricity was going to be so cheap that we wouldn’t need meters, there was no concept of environmental pollution, much less climate change — well, back then a project like this sounded reasonable. Those 60 new housing units, probably with some 90 cars, would just blend into the newly sprawling suburbs. If those cars had some delays getting into town, a few more lanes of highway would get the job done.

Today, we have to acknowledge that the future will not look like 1955, but we still get “planning” as though it was business as usual. West Hill has been subject to a lot of sprawl, and much of it in recent years when the reasons against it should have been well understood. Now, another 60 units are presented as though there were no problem locating more people and their cars at a distance (and elevation) from the city center where all of them will need to go more or less daily.

I see it as self-contradictory to say these are “energy-efficient” because they can’t exist without the support of energy-INefficient transportation. There are well-understood reasons why a public transportation system will never provide adequate service for the daily needs of such developments. And, to say that this arrangement is to benefit low income people is to define “low income” as those who have no trouble owning and operating cars.  Add to these factors the burden that these cars would contribute to the already strained capacity of Trumansburg Rd/Cliff St, the only way into town, and I find this project completely unworthy.

Finally, it doesn’t surprise me that this project doesn’t further the interests or needs of the West Hill. Because the projecct does not arise from a thoughtful plan for how West Hill can move into a better future. Rather, this project originates from the need of Tompkins County to raise cash by selling off some property. (Am I misrepresenting this? I’d like to know.) The Cayuga Village idea was seized as a justification for some cash flow, not to better our community. I fully understand the necessity of making budgets work out; that is by no means a trivial purpose. However, the budget can’t be the basis of shaping our future in ways that will be harmful and largely irreversible.

I fervently hope that this process will stop, that the sale will not take place.

3. Sophie Zapala

[Statement to town planning committee]
My name is Sophie Zapala and I am a resident of West Hill.

Tonight, I would like to express my concerns about the Biggs Property project that the County is currently pursuing. At first glance, this affordable housing project may seem appealing because of its mixed income charter and sustainable living principles. However, once one takes into consideration the existing needs and challenges of the West Hill community it becomes unavoidably clear that this project poses unacceptable risks to an already strained community. To add insult to injury, these risks come with “benefits” that are just too few to count. As you know, Ed Marx held two informational meetings with the residents of West Hill this summer. Sadly, both meetings had a pro-forma and post-factum character and did not provide a venue for any meaningful discussion. Many of the questions asked then still remain unanswered today. After the meetings, two separate written requests were sent out to Ed Marx for additional information. To date, we have not been able to obtain any of the requested information, e.g. environmental impact analysis, affordable housing statistics, crime statistics, plans to improve the infrastructure including funding.

The West Hill community has the worst infrastructure of any other community in Ithaca. We have no elementary school that would provide a natural hub for integration and community building activities, no vibrant and growing economic base of our own, and no park or sport field – not even a single playground. And yet we have several large, low income cluster housing complexes that are responsible for a multitude of quality of life issues; mainly a significant increase of crime.

The Biggs property is a prime piece of real estate that if utilized creatively could solve many existing problems on the hill. Its location next to the Cayuga Medical Center is in fact, first and foremost, the characteristic that indicates its highest and best use. It should not be used for typical affordable housing and/or woods preservation.

Ideally, this land would host assisted living facilities for those who need medical support or require frequent medical attention example: seniors, physically challenged, highly functioning mentally challenged, autistic adults, vision-impaired and so on. It makes perfect sense to cluster such facilities on a nice lot and near the only hospital in town. These facilities could be mixed income and follow sustainable principles as well. On top of providing much needed housing for those most deserving and needing care they would also provide local employment opportunities to West Hillers, including the residents of the Overlook, who could even walk to work. There is enough acreage there to have a sports field, a park, a nice playground and maybe even some occupant owned housing for employees. The lot could house additional facilities such as the affordable long term care, hospice and post–hospital recovery and a day care facility. Maybe even West Hill’s very first small convenience store?

The possibilities are endless and development plan focused on highest and best use, could prove transformational for the entire West Hill community. However, nothing will happen unless the town planning board steps in and takes a leading role on this initiative. The county slated this project of 60 residential units for execution partly because it needs to sell the land and partly to satisfy some vaguely defined needs for affordable housing. The tax credit programs to be used to finance the development will benefit the investors and the developers, which aren’t even local. The real estate taxes, for the first 15 years will be based on the operating income which only means they will be negligible. There are many other negative factors but I just don’t have time to address them now.

Just a few weeks ago, West Hill residents met with Sheriff Lansing and the D.A. to discuss the burglaries, larcenies and other crimes on the hill. One of the options presented to the residents was that we as a community could hire private policing services to protect ourselves from the criminals. Well, I personally find this option unacceptable. The real-estate tax payers should not be asked to hire private police to deal with crime as if there is no accountability for the branches of local government that have made poor development decisions. We all should learn from past mistakes and apply the lessons learned for the future decisions. This is exactly why we cannot allow the proposed Biggs property project to be implemented without in-depth analysis and truly good planning. Let’s figure out what the West Hill community needs first, and then in this light let’s try to figure out the best and highest use of the Biggs property. This is how we can determine what kind of development should take place there. The West Hill Community is ready to participate in the process. I would like to encourage the town planning board to give my suggestions due consideration. It will benefit us all.

Thank you for your time

 4. George and Linda Kobas

We sent this to county legislators:

On Tuesday night the county legislature will be voting on whether to approve a land deal for the proposed Cayuga Village project. As residents of West Hill, we hope that the legislature will listen to the voices of the people who will be affected by this project and vote against it.

Residents of West Hill are all but unanimously opposed to this development. Pam Mackesey, our representative, says she will listen to the voices of her constituents and vote against it. Approving it in the face of this opposition will show a complete disregard for voters and citizens, and continue the impression that county legislators have no interest in the quality of life for people living on West Hill.

When was it decided that West Hill would bear the brunt of the county’s need for affordable housing? Look at Rte. 96 and the Overlook project and tell us that the county did not make a huge mistake in approving that debacle. Or are you one of those Ithacans who never actually gets to West Hill to see the consequences of your decisions?

Sixty townhouses right next to the busy hospital will add congestion to the area and take away a great expanse of green space. No one talks about the almost 100 additional parking spaces that will have to be added, taking away an important habitat for the many hawks — and even eagles — living on West Hill. Much of the current green space will be paved with asphalt.

The Overlook development has been a disaster. Will the county legislature compound that disaster by replicating it next to the hospital? We’ve witnessed accidents on Rte 96 caused by the increased traffic and cars darting out of Overlook onto the already busy two-lane road. No traffic improvements have been made with the additional 400 units.

And what about services for those tenants? Everyone will have to have a car because the nearest store is 3 miles away. Will there be additional buses adding diesel fuel to the environment? And more people standing on the shoulder of a busy highway in all sorts of weather waiting for buses to arrive?

We still don’t know how much this deal — which has not been transparent — will add to county tax income. We only know what it will take away from our environment and quality of life. Will you give a tax break to the current property owners who will see decreased home values because West Hill has been designated for high density development?

We are not against low income housing. But put it where people can access services and schools. Don’t take away more of our decreasing green space so another developer can make money off our precious land. Explain to us exactly what the benefits for the taxpayers already living on West Hill are. And who is really making money off this project.

Most of you are Democrats. So act like true democratic representatives, and vote against this project that is so opposed by the citizens who care about quality of life and the environment.

George and Linda Kobas
2 Evergreen Lane

5. George Frantz

Dear Pam & Will,

I am writing in opposition to the proposed sale of County lands off Dates Drive to facilitate the development known as “Cayuga Village Townhomes.”  This project proposed by the Tompkins County Planning Department is supposed to be an example for the EPA’s Climate Showcase Communities program.  According to the EPA’s own information, Climate Showcase Communities are to provide leadership in community-based greenhouse gas reduction and promoting transportation and land use initiatives that reduce energy use and save money.

Once again here in Ithaca we have a very bad land use decision being sold by slapping the “sustainable development” tag on the project.   Contrary to the sales pitch provided the public to date, this projects represents no progress whatsoever toward a more sustainable Tompkins County, nor does it  provide any design or policy concepts that contribute to the effort to prevent climate change that are worth showcasing.

Even within Ithaca and Tompkins County there are already a number of residential developments, located in much more suitable locations, which demonstrate both the feasibility and wisdom of energy efficient construction.  Moreover what benefit in “innovations” that may be incorporated into creating more energy efficient dwellings as part of this proposed project is lost due to its location in an area at the far outer edge of the Ithaca urbanized area; and a location where its residents will have no choice but to drive everywhere.

It’s isolated site off Dates Drive, over 1/2 mile from the nearest TCAT bus stop mile, along busy roads that lack sidewalks.  The only destination within reasonable walking distance, if one considers walking on a busy street a suitable, safe choice, is Cayuga Medical Center.

For low- and moderate income workers who many times have limited transportation options, the isolated location is particularly poor.  To take advantage of TCAT would require a1/2 mile or more walk over streets with no sidewalks, in a climate noted for its harsh winters.  There is no bus shelter at the nearest TCAT bus stop.  Those of us who routinely utilize the TCAT Rte. 21 bus for our workday commute know well that many times the bus is full before it reaches Ithaca during the weekday morning rush hour.  Even if the wild projections for reducing reliance on the automobile for project residents were to materialize, this TCAT route lacks the capacity to accommodate even and moderate increase in ridership.

Because of the isolated nature of the site, according US Census data on commutation patterns in Tompkins County, we can expect 95% or more of residents to rely on single occupancy automobiles to commute to work.  We can expect that 95% or more trips will be by automobile.  This equates to another 350-400 vehicles on Rte. 96 & Cliff Street each day; an additional 1 million-plus vehicle miles traveled on West Hill each year (it’s 3.5 miles from the “village” site to the corner of Buffalo & Fulton).  Those 3.5 miles represent an additional 37,000-plus gallons of gas burned each year; and an additional 470-500 tons or more of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere each year.

Is this really what the EPA Climate Showcase Communities program is all about?

The proposed project is blatantly contrary to the newly adopted Town of Ithaca Comprehensive Plan.  The Town’s new comprehensive plan, reflects the thoughtful collaboration of Town officials, citizen and staff.  The Plan places the site within a large “Semi-Rural Neighborhood” area.  These areas are intended to accommodate limited low-impact residential development in a semi-rural setting, while preserving the open character of the surrounding countryside.  The anticipated development densities in these areas of the Town, according to the Comprehensive Plan, is only 1.5 dwellings per acre – about 50% the density proposed by the Tompkins County Planning Department and developer.

This is another example of packaging up a bad development as “sustainable” and hoping nobody will look too closely. There’s nothing sustainable in the proposal.  The project proposes nothing innovative, and nothing that furthers the effort to reduce the impacts of climate change that are worthy of showcasing.  It does little or nothing to increase the supply of decent affordable housing in Tompkins County.

Indeed, it is far too similar to so many other developments in the Ithaca area over the past several decades to be considered anything but conventional residential sprawl.  Moreover, like recent West Hill affordable housing developments such as Linderman Creek and Overlook Hills, it will be just another isolated low- and moderate income ghetto, lacking most of the services low- and moderate income residents needed.

From the standpoint of sustainable, environmentally responsible land use policy, the site is a very poor choice for the type of development proposed.  In terms promoting reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in Tompkins County, the site is a very poor choice for any sort of Climate Showcase project.  In terms of promoting the development of decent, affordable housing, the site is a terrible choice.

George R. Frantz, ASLA, AICP
Land Use & Environmental Planner
604 Cliff Street

6. Peter A. Forlano

Thank you George, for saying what I have been thinking all day. You have my 100% agreement and support.  I hope we can persuade our legislators to listen to and work with the community.

In a perfect world  elected officials would be looking out for a community rather than approving short term quick solutions that serve no one very well.  Sometimes it does seem hopeless. Is it too cynical to believe that decisions have get made long before they are presented to the public and therefore the role of our representatives is to sell us on propositions that are essentially done deals.

I have to say that Will’s statement about supporting the sale sounded like a party line. There was no original thinking, no passion, just a regurgitation of what has already been presented. The needs of a neighborhood should come from the people who reside here not from a profit motivated developer. I don’t know the recent history of this land but it seems to me that the county could have come to the community before moving ahead with any project.

Anyway, I like what you wrote and wanted to let you know.

Peter A. Forlano

7. Dan Hoffman

I have not chimed in on this issue previously, but want to add my comments before the upcoming County vote.

I find myself agreeing with many from West Hill who have spoken out (in greater detail), questioning or opposing the proposed sale by the County of the former Biggs property, so it can be developed for higher-density residential purposes.

My biggest concern is that the type of development intended for this property is much closer to the definition of suburban sprawl than it is to what I would consider to be “smart growth.”  The project would require conversion of what is now mostly an open-space, “greenfield”-type site into roadways, lawns and buildings, rather than focusing this development into an already-urbanized area (e.g., the City of Ithaca, a village or a hamlet) that has the infrastructure and services residents will need.  The residents of the new project will almost certainly be heavily dependent upon individual motor vehicles (and the fossil fuels than run them), to get to workplaces, stores, schools, etc. The new traffic thus generated will be inflicted upon already over-burdened roads and intersections, from Cliff Street well into the West End area of Ithaca.  And the naturalistic character and value of the current open space (a rapidly diminishing resource in this area) will most likely be compromised, to the detriment of the vistas from the Lake and its easterly side and to the experience of the adjacent, newly-enhanced Black Diamond Trail, as a quiet, peaceful “walk in the woods.”

Too many examples of this type of unsustainable development are occuring throughout the county.  The County itself has little legislative say over this (although its Planning Department has advocated an approach to growth intended to counter the trend toward sprawl), so, at the least, I would hope the County as a landowner would resist contributing to the problem – which I believe selling this land, for this purpose, will do.

I appreciate my friend Will Burbank’s concern about affordable housing opportunities, but I don’t believe that cause is served, in the long run, by building new housing in suburban locations that are separated from where the jobs and services are.

Dan Hoffman
(Resident of Elm Street, in the City of Ithaca)

8. Pat Dutt

Dear County Legislators,

I urge you to reject the sale of Biggs Property.  My points follow:

1. The residents of West Hill, along with Town and City Representatives and Cornell are gathering for a visioning meeting this Friday.  We began planning for this meeting in July, and to sell this property now to an out-of-community developer will undermine our efforts to plan together for the West Hill; this will also send a strong message to West Hill residents that the Tompkins County Legislators are not interested in planning with the residents (who are the largest stakeholders on the West Hill) and not interested in supporting the West Hill, which is already a fractured and crime-ridden community.

2. The developer purports to help the poor, yet renters are not even allowed to buy their property for 15 years!   Not 2 or 3, but 15 (and by that time, it is likely major repairs will be necessary) so that interests outside the community (wealthy individuals and corporations) can take tax breaks – for 15 years.  In addition, anyone living out on the outskirts would need a car, and according to existing studies, a car costs $11,000 a year in Ithaca, hardly a throw-away sum for a poor family.

3. Even after repeated and direct questioning to the developer and a legislator: “What taxes will this development pay?” we have gotten no actual quantity.  Either this project has not been thoroughly researched by any of the promoting parties, or there is a deliberate attempt to muddle the tax issue.  We believe, after looking at the numbers (data we asked for, and was not given to us) that this development will be paying close to “0” in taxes for 15 years.  If each unit would normally pay $4,000, and there are 60 units, 15 years, this equates to a loss of 3.6 million in tax dollars, hardly an insignificant sum especially when the Town and City must provide services to these 60 units.

4. We need to put a stop to the siphoning of wealth outside the community.  We believe the time has come explore this issue of using local developers, local workers and creating developments designed for our community and that can be integrated into our existing community.  We intend to raise this issue at our visioning meeting.

5. Before any more development occurs, we not only need to address the issue of infrastructure with the Town and the City, but we need to come up with solutions.

6. As other residents on the West Hill have suggested, I too urge you to consult The Minority Report which is on the West Hill website,   http://ithacawest.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/minority_report-final.pdf.

7. We do not agree that the proposed development would be a “model” for other communities to emulate, we believe, rather , that the proposed development is a beginning, and we can do better, especially given the intellectual resources that Ithaca has at its fingertips.

Pat Dutt

9. Tish Perlman

Dear Will-

For the most part, you and I have agreed more often than not, on many county issues. But I have to tell you I am very skeptical about the sale of the remaining Biggs parcel for a 60 unit development on West Hill, where, as you know, I have lived for 14 years.  I have many of the same concerns that others in my community have aired. I worry about more traffic in this area, I worry that this issue has not been thoughtfully considered in regard to concerns of those of us who live here. Is too easy to throw out the “affordable housing” and “energy efficient” labels. Why is West Hill constantly being overburdened by the county need for more housing?

One also has to question “energy efficient” in a general neighborhood sense when 60 units will certainly drag in dozens upon dozens of more cars to the area. So, I must ask you, since you have declared you will vote “yes” on this issue, with so much opposition in the community that will be most affected, who are you representing by voting in the affirmative? I would urge you, at the least,  to vote for a delay.

Thanks for all you do, Will, but I do not think you are making the right decision here.



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