ITHACA, N.Y. — In the world of real estate development, every project, big or small, comes with its uncertainties. How the overall market will absorb the new addition, what requests the planning board might make, what the neighbors might build; issues with the building code typically isn’t one of them.

However, a recent state building and fire code change has placed several Collegetown projects in limbo. John Novarr’s College Townhouses project 119-125 College Avenue remains a vacant lot, and Visum Development’s apartment building for 210 Linden Avenue is an excavated hole, the plywood board displaying permits toppled backwards into the muddy pit below. The city isn’t all that happy either, as the hangups affect about $20 million of fully-taxed development, and over a hundred housing units. The students and Cornell staff these Collegetown projects were intended for, are looking at housing elsewhere for the time being.

The problem goes back to the New York State Fire Prevention and Building Code. As equipment, materials and fire prevention/control tactics change, so does the code. Usually, there’s a big revision every several years, and smaller supplemental revisions in between. Recently, one of the revisions in the code supplement had some provisions that, as the city and developers would discover, has some major implications for Collegetown.

“{I}t is a regulation of the NYS Fire Prevention and Building Code that requires Aerial Fire Truck Access for buildings greater than 30 feet in height,” said Ithaca Fire Chief Tom Parsons. Parsons points to a section in the November 2016 supplement called “Appendix D”. “If you review section 105.1 through 105.4 {of Appendix D}, you will read that per section 105.4, utility lines cannot be located between the aerial fire truck access road and the building.”

There one hits the crux of the matter – the above ground power lines, the web of black wires that cascade over many of Collegetown’s crowded streets. As long as those are in place, buildings over 30 feet tall are technically illegal – that would even affect many of the older apartment houses, but those are grandfathered in. Adhering closely to the revised code, the Ithaca Fire Department isn’t going to sign off and any new building taller than 30 feet if there are wires in front of it.

“The city only recently was made aware that aerial access provisions had been added to the NYS Uniform Fire Code in “Appendix D”, added city of Ithaca Planning Director JoAnn Cornish. “We were unaware of this when the projects listed…were being reviewed.”

The list of impacted projects includes the College Townhouses and redevelopments of 118 College Avenue and 126 College Avenue, as well as 238 Linden and 210 Linden. Presumably, anything else proposed on the lower blocks of College or Linden Avenues would get caught in the fire code red tape as well. Quick aside, the Nines proposal at 311 College is unaffected because the power lines are underground in the inner core of Collegetown.

“This was definitely an issue that we were never aware of, and I don’t believe other developers knew about either,” said Todd Fox, CEO of Visum Development.

Technically, it is still possible to apply for variances just like one can do with zoning. In fact, “routine variances” are usually permitted for a section of code that is technically violated but understood to be a difficult-to-fix factor beyond a project team’s control. For example, many older streets in the city are legally too narrow to meet fire code (they need to be 26 feet wide through their entire length), but the state lets it slide for new and existing structures that are otherwise up to code.

According to Cornish, under the new code regulations, building code staff think the street widths would continue to get a routine variance, but the power lines won’t. In order to get a building height variance and keep the poles and wires in place above ground, the Ithaca Fire Department and code enforcement staff believe that steel frames, rooftop stair access, and wider doorways and stairs would be needed.

“{W}hile this seems a well reasoned mitigation, the cost for the mitigation would be significant, potentially adding $100 or more per square foot to the construction costs. For a large project, it most likely would be more economical to relocate the power lines. Smaller projects might not want to do either option as it would be costly to either comply with the code or provide mitigation for a variance,” said Cornish. In other words, to get a variance from the lines may make many projects prohibitively expensive. In those cases, it’s either negotiate with NYSEG to bury the lines, or hang up the hard hats.

However, the projects on College Avenue do have one thing going in their favor that the Linden projects don’t – Cornish says NYSEG is aware of the “impediment to development”, and the city in talks with them to bury the College Avenue power lines by 2020. Projects like Novarr’s 119-125 College Townhouses project may be granted a codes variance at the state’s variance hearings in Syracuse next month, not because the apartments meet the building design recommendations, but because work is likely in the next couple of years to bury the power lines.

As for the Linden projects, developers will likely need to open their wallets a littler wider if they want their projects to come to fruition. “We are going to have to pay to have the power lines and utility lines buried underground,” said Fox.

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at