In keeping with the recent talk of Comprehensive Plans, Tompkins County has just released their new plan, their first since 2004. That might not seem like a big deal, but in that time period, the county has probably added 4,500 residents and a couple thousand housing units, so it’s more important than it might seem at first glance (for the sake of comparison, every county community except Ithaca city has made a plan since 2000; the city’s dates from 1971). Currently, the plan is in review and up for adoption by the County Legislature at their meeting on the 17th. The 109-page document has been in the works since the fall of 2013.
Generally, the county doesn’t play a big role in what does and doesn’t get built in its constituent villages and towns. Building projects are required to get county input, but the county isn’t about to stop anything, nor does it have much authority to (unless you’re applying for tax breaks, like Jason Fane’s 130 E. Clinton project). Perhaps the largest point of contention at the moment is the intermunicipal NYSEG natural gas pipeline, which Lansing wants and needs to sustain its growth, but the county has issues with, saying it could upset their green energy goals. On the opposite end of the scale was the Cayuga Ridge project for the Biggs parcel, which the county planned to sell to an affordable housing developer, but received significant blowback from the West Hill community. Cayuga Ridge was later cancelled when a site check by the developer revealed more wetlands than previously thought.
Anyway, back to the plan. It’s available in small chunks on this page, or for those whose internet connection can handle all 109 pages at once, here it is.
The general theme here from a housing standpoint is to fill in the spaces within the city, villages and hamlets. There’s a strong push on the county level to keep farmland from being scooped up for new development – a major threat, considering some of the cheapest land to develop in the county happens to be far-flung agricultural properties, where a relative lack of neighbors and shoestring small town planning boards can make for a quick and easy process. The logic is, if development takes place in communities that are already settled and already have employers and amenities, it limits the need for getting into a car for every trip, and makes for a more “sustainable” environment and stronger communities. Urban/infill development also makes for a lower tax burden per new unit added – there’s no need to pave new roads or extend utility lines.
The county is also becoming a bigger proponent of mixed-use development – apartment buildings with retail on the first floor, projects that have space for both homes and offices, and so forth. The logic is the same as before – if it’s convenient, people are more likely to walk, and patronize their own community. Trends in smaller households leads to the county’s suggestion of smaller housing units, as well as more senior housing for the greying population that chooses to “age in place”.
This all sounds great on paper, but there are many issues in practice. Anti-development sentiment, the ideal candidates for development aren’t for sale, outdated municipal zoning and so forth.
Economically, the county plans on sustaining its biggest contributors, education and healthcare, while making an effort to diversify with incentives towards manufacturing, high-tech/tech startups, food processing, agriculture and tourism. Specifically, they’re hoping to leverage the Cornell tech scene into permanent jobs and new economic development, which has met with some success, though nothing on the scale of, say, Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle. The high taxes, isolated location and lack of access to capital are major hurdles in an area that has plenty of brain power to tap into. The county is hoping to alleviate some of the burden by utilizing the state’s STARTUP NY program, and supporting resources like the new Rev business incubator in downtown Ithaca.
The county only seems to be expecting 3,000-6,000 new jobs in the next ten years – a number that seems a little conservative, if recent growth is any indicator. The county (aka the Ithaca metro, following the Federal BLS) has added 8,400 jobs since December 2004 (63,700 jobs in December 2004 to 72,100 in December 2014).
On an individual scale, the county is seeking to expand broadband internet infrastructure and maintain the airport, which has seen a sharp decrease in travelers over the past year, putting its long-term feasibility at risk. There will also be continued funding towards planning studies (a study examining the NYS DOT relocation from the waterfront is the latest example), tourism advertising and tax abatements when appropriate.
Finally, the county expounds the affordable housing issue, noting that 38% of renters and owners are above the “affordable” threshold, there are over 15,000 in-commuters, and very low vacancy rates creates a disincentive for slumlords to fix up their overpriced properties, which in turn makes communities less energy-efficient. Unfortunately, the county doesn’t offer many solutions. They note an affordable housing fund paid into by itself, the colleges and the city of Ithaca, put the partnership is set to expire this year, and the future is uncertain. The other is “increasing community support for the construction of more housing units”, which is much easier said than done.
There also sections on encouraging mass transit and alternative (non-car) commuting, natural resource preservation and wetland management, but those are too close to my day job for me to want to write about. But in sum, the theme is infill development in the hamlets and established areas, make the area more eco-friendly, preserving farms and green space, trying to expand affordable housing options and continue growing the economy. All of which are great goals, but given that these interests can conflict with each other, there will likely be many debates over the next several years.