ITHACA, N.Y. — At the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee later today, members of the Common Council will likely take the first steps to halt the “studentization” of South Hill.

After mulling a few different plans, the final proposal moving forward calls for an overlay on the existing South Hill neighborhood that states there can only be one primary structure on lower density R-1 and R-2 residential property.

The way that works is something like this – most of the properties on South Hill have some form of residential zoning – mostly R-1a, R-2b, and R-3a. The higher the number, the more dense a lot can be and the greater the variety of uses; also, lettering like c’s and b’s are modest sub-categories that allow greater density with a property, so for instance, R-1a allows a 3-story building with 20% lot coverage, while R-1b allows a 3-story building with a slightly greater 25% lot coverage.

While R-1 and R-2 are intended for single-family and two-family homes, they do allow additional primary structures so long as they fit the lot requirements for setbacks, height and parking. In a place with limited student interest like West Hill, that’s worked fine. In South Hill, a neighborhood right next to a college, with the potential to add student rentals on larger lots, well, that’s how the current controversy has come about. Recent projects like 605 South Aurora Street and 607 South Aurora Street added infill housing geared towards students, who tend to have deeper pockets more likely to create a good return on investment. This has changed the balance between owner-occupied and rental housing in ways that permanent residents have not been pleased with. A planned duplex behind 217 Columbia Street appears to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, setting off the current debate and the demand for some kind of halt to the student-focused infill housing.

The goal is to stop student-focused infill housing long enough so that the city can get a South Hill neighborhood plan drafted, a project that won’t start until next year. The South Hill plan would ultimately create guidelines and note where rental infill is and isn’t appropriate in the neighborhood.

Does this stop all development? Technically, no, but it takes away the most common method currently used. A property owner could still apply to build an accessory apartment, which would need a special permit approved by the city. However, the primary structure needs to have been owner-occupied for five years, and the accessory unit, whether attached to the owner’s house or detached (say, above a garage), can’t have more than two bedrooms. In theory, one could subdivide a property to create a vacant lot for a new primary structure, but the lot would have to meet city lot size and dimensions (length/width) requirements.

The duplex at 217 Columbia Street is grandfathered in since it was proposed and approved before any new zoning. Owner Charlie O’Connor had the design modified to better fit the neighborhood, and offered to prohibit renting its two units to non-students; it was approved by the Planning Board last month.

Also, should a project like the Chain Works District finally obtain approval and move forward, this overlay is designed to not interfere with the old Emerson Power factory’s redevelopment. Only R-1 and R-2 zones are impacted. That was one of reasons why a moratorium was taken out of consideration. A second idea, a complete rezoning, threatened to put multiple existing properties out of compliance, creating legal headaches for existing homeowners as well as businesses like the Inn On Columbia B&B, which would be illegal in an R-1. Spot rezoning, where non-contiguous individual properties are rezoned, is legally dubious. So, the best solution looked to be an overlay like the one moving forward now.

The way it goes from here is that the PEDC votes on whether the draft zoning law is reasonable and appropriate, sending it back to the Planning Department if not; if deemed acceptable, they vote to send it to Common Council for a vote to enact the new overlay into law. That would be November at the earliest.

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