DANBY, NY – A development project a year-and-a-half in the making is facing opposition in the Town of Danby.
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It’s a tale that we may see repeat itself more and more while Tompkins County continues to be prosperous: the inevitable battle that occurs when expanding development (or in this case, redevelopment) threatens to steal away the peace and tranquility of rural living.
Development won out in Varna last week, albeit after numerous modifications in attempts to appease its critics. Within a few months time, it will be up to the Town Board of Danby to make a similar decision.
The development in question would tentatively be called Summit Enterprise Center and it would serve as a mixed-use space that would serve as an incubator for local agri-businesses, among other things.
The conflict has arisen because in order to do that, the area would need to be rezoned. Currently, the area is zoned for the manufacture of clothing, as it was the site of Angelheart Designs factory that ran in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Even that property had its fair share of opposition. Records dating back to 1997 show that the public had issues with the factory. People expressed concerns about things like the bright lights from the factory, extra traffic and noise from both employees and large trucks delivering supplies or hauling off finished goods.
David Hall, who owns the property and also runs a businesses called National Book Auctions, explained that the first idea he wanted to pursue was an center for autism therapy, as his son has autism, but he knew that the 21,000 square foot building was so large that an autism center would never fill it.
“The Town of Danby’s comprehensive plan stipulates that they’d like to create a business incubator in Danby,” Hall explained. ” I’m very entrepreneurial, and I really like the entrepreneurial spirit, so the idea of helping entrepreneurs was very appealing… so that immediately resonated with me.”
Citing the 15 acres of open field and 5,000 ft. warehouse space on the property, Hall said he thought it would be a perfect spot for agri-businesses to get their start. He also plans to relocate National Book Auctions to the new location.
Hall says that the uses he’s proposed for the building are similar in function if not in form to what was approved when Angelheart Designs occupied the space. The main difference is that it would house multiple tenants instead of just one.
With that in mind, Hall said he thought it would be a fairly easy and straightforward process to get approvals for the new uses for the property, but that has not been the case.
The three main points of contention around the project are concerns about traffic, water usage and possible future uses of the building beyond those already proposed by Hall.
Ted Crane, a Danby resident who has been opposed to the Summit Enterprise Center Development, confirmed that the issues with property date all the way back to when Angelheart was manufacturing clothing there.
“What [Hall] didn’t realize was the amount of frustration and animosity that the neighborhood had built up over the years to the original operation,” Crane said.
Crane says that along with several Town Board members over the years, believe that the Angelheart factory should have never been approved for that location in the first place, and that the property’s ongoing status as a Planned Development Zone in a light-residential neighborhood has opened the door for this kind of conflict to arise again.
Traffic is one of the problems brought up by opponents of the development. This is less because there is major concern about traffic jams or accidents and more because of issues like noise pollution and an overall change to the character of the neighborhood.
Angelheart, at it its peak, employed 90 people, according to a Transportation Impact Assessment filed by Hall. The maximum number of employees that would be allowed at the new complex would be 50.
While the day-to-day traffic generated by employees might be lower, Crane said he feels that the assessment doesn’t take into account people visiting the facility to take advantage of services at the autism center, or to purchase product from one of the businesses located there.
Crane says that another issue is limited water access in the area. He explained that on one of the neighboring properties, the owners have dug four wells and are only able to get 1 gallon per minute of fresh water.
One of the uses proposed for the development would be food processing for any agri-businesses that locate there. There is concern among some residents that overuse on the part of Summit Enterprise Center would draw down the water and impact nearby property’s supply.
“Food processing has an enormous need for water, relative to textile manufacturing.” Crane said. “That has people worried.”
While Hall says that the facility wouldn’t require a water allotment any more than a residential home would, but Crane argues that there’s a substantial difference between the amount of water a person actually uses and the amount allowed by law, which is 750 gallons of water per day.
The third issue is that some people feel that the limitations on what sorts of uses the building could be used for in the future are too lax.
The current version of the law would allow for things like a barber shop, a bed and breakfast, solar, wind or geothermal energy generation, and a retail space up to 1,000 square feet in size. Some of those uses would require site plan approval from the Danby Planning Board, however.
Overall, a major concern is the finality of the decision. “Once a decision is made to change the PDZ, there’s no going back, there’s no suing. You can’t go out and say, ‘Hey, this guy’s stealing my water,’ because he’s doing something legal,” Crane said.
A “hard shell”
Hall says he’s done his best to be accommodating to these concerns. He says his goal has been to create a metaphorical “hard shell” around the property that would minimize impacts on the neighbors, but at the same time argues that it’s unreasonable to expect no impact at all.
“We’re all exposed to risk all the time of what our neighbor might do that we prefer he not do,” he argues. “Especially in an ag district, anyone can put 100 head of cattle up there and consume enormous quantities of water, or put in a pig farm which is rather odorous, or big loud equipment running to harvest hay. That’s rural. That’s what rural is. It’s not always peace and quiet.”
“I live right next door, so I’m deeply invested in having it be a very benign and pleasant activity that goes on over there. There may come a day when I’ve sold the property and still live in my house, so I want to be low-impact.”
This hard shell manifests itself in terms of limits on hours of operation, a limit on the number of employees, and a limit on the number of truck trips per day, even what color the building can be painted and requirements on outdoor lighting.
“If the proposal goes forward as drafted, it would have far and away the tightest water usage restrictions of any property in Danby,” Hall noted.
Hall says that he’s reached out to some of the critics of the plan and got the impression that some of its opponents simply prefer that that no commercial activity going on at the site. He also noted that during the eighteen months that this plan has been making the rounds in the planning board, he actually started a clothing business on the property, as allowed by the current zoning.
“This is a commercial property. It’s a question of whether it’s going to stay on its past course, or go on a different course. Not that there’s going to be nothing going on there or this proposal,” Hall explained.
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