DRYDEN, N.Y. — It’s the magical question of zoning – what is the right zoning for the “right” amount of development? The truth is, there is no one single answer because it changes with place and time. In Dryden’s case, some planning board members think it’s time to rein it in within the hamlet of Varna.

Since the new zoning was put into effect in December 2012, only a couple of housing projects have been built. Apart from 902 Dryden Road and its eight units with 26 bedrooms, the only other major project that’s been built is the 42-unit / 108-bedroom Ivy Ridge project at 802 Dryden Road, on the western edge of the hamlet and the town of Dryden. The two other substantial projects approved in the past seven years, the 36-unit / 84-bed 1061 Dryden Road Evergreen Townhouses) and the 15 single-family homes at the Cottages at Fall Creek Crossing development at 5 Freese Road, have not broken ground and the sites are up for sale, their futures uncertain.

While a couple of those projects conjured debate during the town’s review process, this zoning discussion largely began after the initiation of one very large proposal – Trinitas Development’s plan for an approximately 220-unit, 550-bed apartment community geared toward students. When an out-of-town developer proposes a combination of something large scale, large capacity, and geared toward students, the reaction generally isn’t going to be a good one.

Members of the Town of Dryden Planning Board have gathered together as a sub-committee called the Varna Re-zoning Subcommittee in an effort to draw up a more stringent zoning code for the hamlet that would limit density and make it less desirable for developers, ideally without punishing homeowners or smaller local landlords in the process.

An overarching goal of the plan is to reduce the potential buildable capacity in the hamlet from a theoretical maximum of 2,700 more bedrooms (possibly more if the Hillside Acres trailer park was replaced) to a maximum of 1,200.

The 2012 Varna Community Development Plan estimated a potential buildout of 454 bedrooms, much less than even the 1,200. However, it underestimated the number of bedrooms within the conceptual designs it offered. For example, it assumed 1.5 bedrooms per 1,000 square feet of house, and in practice, a 1,000 square-foot house is typically a larger two-bedroom or small three-bedroom home. It suggested a 95-lot single-family housing development of 1,200 square-foot homes would have only 171 bedrooms; more realistically, it’d be three bedrooms per home (see Fall Creek for examples), for 285 bedrooms.

The initial zoning proposal has only just started to receive critiques from other members of the Planning Board. It has yet to circulate to the county, the town board, and the broader public, including developers or affected property owners. It’s only at the first step of a long review and revision process.

The downzoning proposal carries five specific goals:

  1. More precisely defining the purpose and goals of each district;
  2. Improving the definitions of development types;
  3. Changing what development types would be allowed in each district to promote the goals of that district;
  4. Reducing the allowable development units per acre of each of those types in each district and create differences among districts;
  5. Eliminating both the energy and redevelopment bonuses in the hamlet districts, requiring energy efficiency for all new construction in the hamlet.

Some parcels are downzoned in the proposed new rezoning map, while others retain the same zoning but are allowed fewer housing units per acre depending on the housing type. Some forms of housing, like multi-family detached rentals, were outright eliminated. Most had their permitted densities reduced.

For example, if you wanted to build condominiums, the zoning currently allows 10 units/acre in the hamlet’s mixed-use zone (VHMUD), 10 units/acre in the residential zone (VHRD), and 6 units/acre for the hamlet traditional district (VHTD), with the potential for an extra housing unit per acre or tax parcel if it met green building guidelines, and another one unit/acre bonus if it involved the redevelopment of a run-down property. The new plan reduces permitted density to 8 units/acre in the VHMUD, 6 units/acre in the VHRD, and keeping it at 6 units/acre in the VHTD, with no bonuses of any kind.

The long story short is that some parcels are downzoned by district, all housing types are de-densified in the proposed code, and the bonuses are taken away. The goal is to reduce dense development as a matter of character preservation, and it targets rentals more significantly than owner-occupied units.

The proposed rezoning of Varna.

David Weinstein, a member of the Varna Re-zoning Subcommittee, explained that the effort to make rentals less appealing was purposeful.

“The reason we are emphasizing single-family homes is that we’re trying to (have) a relatively even mix of rentals and owner-occupied single-family units,” Weinstein said. “That mix is important to this community. When you buy property, you’re more likely to invest time in the community. Buying in says you’re likely there for a period of time. You don’t tend to see the same level of personal investment with rentals.”

“We’ve seen a vast majority of new units be rentals instead of owner-occupied, something like 13:1. We wanted to put pressure on getting more of a mix with owner-occupied single-family housing. It stems from the idea that we have people investing, monitoring and building up the community,” he said.

Is it the most effective approach to Trinitas and fears of overbuilding or overdensifying Varna? That question is up for debate. The focus on single-family for-sale housing poses the inherent risk of making housing less accessible to low- and moderate-income households, as the single-family homes would likely be priced out of reach. The concern was raised to Weinstein.

“Looking at recent housing surveys, there’s a huge interest in having affordable housing,” he said. “We’re trying to explore and make opportunities for those kind of things. We think there’s a possibility in Varna for homes (priced) in the $150,000 to $200,000 range, opportunities in Varna specifically to build small-footprint homes at a reduced rate. We’re looking at government grants, INHS, to lower the cost of initial buy-in. We want to provide a mix of housing types, and a portion of that could be small-footprint, affordable homes. We think affordability could be found in a mix of options. But we’re getting these apartments at $1,500, $2,000/month.”

Having homes for sale in that price range is difficult and would require grants. The demand is certainly there, but as noted in the county’s 2016 housing study, the development costs are too high to make a $200,000 sale financially viable.

If the concern was more about the rise in student residents, then the town could consider a law limiting the number of unrelated persons who could live in each residential unit.

“We have a law that you can’t have more than four unrelated individuals in a unit. That’s a lot. We would need to explore reducing that number. I haven’t seen that sentiment on the town board and planning board towards reducing that number. The big deficit in our market is one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, yet developers still want to do these four-bedroom units,” he said.

“There’s room for students as long as it’s balanced. We don’t want to go overboard on these kinds of things. We don’t want to outlaw them necessarily, we just want a mix of options where people can find an avenue to join our community, whether professionals or students. We don’t want to be overrun by one type of person, particularly students.”

The proposed zoning changes are being reviewed by the Planning Board, who encouraged greater outreach for comment as part of the proposal. The Planning Board will make its recommendation in consultation with planners, and the town will decide whether to enact the changes, modify, or shelve the plan. Along the way, both boards will have to try and achieve the delicate balance of residents, whether students, non-student renters and their families, and owner-occupied households for the sake of an active, accessible community. As it has often been over the past 20 years, Varna’s future is once again the subject of spirited debate.

Brian Crandall

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