ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a busy meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) last night. The board weighed in on the future of the Ithaca Gun smokestack and federal HUD funding allotments, received updates on proposed tree and short-term rental ordinances, and got an earful from constituents regarding the unsanctioned encampments management plan.
As always, The Ithaca Voice staff covered the meeting to help keep you in the know. For those who like reading material, the agenda can be found here.
A quick programming note before diving in — the unsanctioned encampments update, which was the trigger for an impassioned public comment period at the start of the meeting, will be covered separately by my colleague Jimmy Jordan.
2023 HUD Action Plan Funding
There were two special orders of business last night, both public hearings related to the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency’s (IURA’s) disbursement of federal funds. First up was the public hearing for the proposed 2023 grant awards for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds. The annually awarded grants are the Community Development Block Grant Entitlement Program (CDBG) and Home Investment Partnerships Program (HOME). The requests are designed to help people, or more specifically, to fund organizations in the community that help people in the low- and moderate-income category through housing, social services and economic programs.
As what often happens, the requests were greater than the amount the city has to work with. While over $1.5 million was requested, the city had $1,137,425 to award. It appears all applicants received at least some funding award, though many did not receive all that they requested — for instance, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services requested $195,000 to assist with home rehabilitation projects for lower-income homeowners, but received only $146,250. You can read about the submissions here.
The PEDC’s role is to approve the funding as the committees of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) have allotted and send the Action Plan to the full council for approval and implementation in June.
The second related item is an amendment to the “HUD Citizen Participation Plan.” The amendment is intended to clarify two things. The first is to clearly state that for any substantial amendments to the annual Action Plan once it’s approved, not only does Common Council have to sign off, but not the regional office for the federal Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) must sign off as well. The second clarification is how anonymous comments are handled. Where there was no rule before, the citizen participation plan will now state that anonymous comments will be handled case-by-case. However, no name means there’s no obligation for the IURA to follow up, so if you’re going to rat someone out through a burner e-mail account, you’d better provide the evidence upfront.
The public hearing was fairly brief. City resident and frequent PEDC visitor Theresa Alt was generally supportive but was uncomfortable with the award to Habitat for Humanity given the controversy over 417 South Aurora Street, while a second speaker spoke in support of St. John’s Sober Living Reintegration Services, but emphasized that it’s important to have multiple different supports. No one had any comments on the revisions to the Citizen Participation Plan.
As is typical for the annual Action Plan, the discussion by Common Council was brief—after all, the IURA’s citizen committees have already done the hard part of reviewing and tentatively awarding the various applicants based on the strength and community value of their proposals.
One question that did come up was from Councilor Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd Ward), who asked about funding for wet homeless shelters (shelters for those dependent on alcohol). IURA Community Development Planner Anisa Mendizabal explained that while they had no applicants this year to provide that, it does come up from time to time as a discussion topic in the IURA, and needs a qualified sponsor with a well-developed plan in order to be eligible for funding. Unfortunately, that’s where previous concept plans from community partners end up falling short. The vote to send the Action Plan on to Council passed unanimously.
Discussion on the Citizen Participation Plan was even briefer. Apart from some language tweaks on the resolution, the PEDC had no further comment. The amendments/clarifications passed unanimously, for final review and potential approval by the full Common Council in June.
Plus One ADU Funding
In partnership with the city of Ithaca, INHS has applied for and received money from the state to help lower-income owner-occupied households with accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as in-law apartments, to be able to perform repairs on those accessory rental units, and bring them up to code for legal rental.
As INHS’s Delia Yarrow explained, there has been much difficulty over the years in using existing funding streams to perform that work — the approximately $500,000 in funding to be awarded by New York State will be used to rehab those long-term accessory rental units that lower-income homeowners own, so that they can continue to utilize those accessory units and be able to keep their homes in an area with ever-rising property costs. The money would be used to cover at least five ADUs.
While it’s a non-voting item, councilors were somewhat lukewarm to the plan. Councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd Ward) felt that the focus should be on converting existing renters into homeowners, while Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) expressed concerns that renovation would raise the assessed value of a property and make it more expensive to own. Yarrow explained that there was an abatement process to reduce the upfront tax burden on the lower-income homeowner, and the scope of work focuses on making units safe and rentable, where the alternative is a non-compliant and unsafe unit that could not be legally occupied.
Short-Term Rental Regulation
Just a brief update here — as explained by Planning Director Lisa Nicholas, staff plan to approach PEDC in July with an estimate for enforcement/regulation costs, and several items for discussion, such as parking requirements, occupancy laws, and so forth.
If you own a short-term rental or utilize them when you have company in town, you’ll want to keep a close eye on this as we get into the summer months, as the city intends to tighten up the STR market to limit the affordability and quality of life issues that have been the source of frustration for many long-term local residents.
Private Tree Ordinance
First up for a vote to circulate for public comment was the proposed Private Tree Ordinance. Planning Director Nicholas and City Forester Jeanne Grace were on hand to discuss the proposal and answer any questions the PEDC had. This ordinance has been in discussions for several years, but was waylaid by the COVID pandemic. Now that some post-pandemic normal has taken hold and city business as usual has resumed, the tree ordinance proposal has returned from the back-burner to active discussion.
As currently written and enforced, the tree ordinance only applies to street and park trees. This draft amendment would expand that to impact all properties public and private. A tree removal permit for removal would be required for “Significant Tree” (8-23” diameter at typical adult human chest height) and any “Heritage Tree” (24” or greater diameter) within the City of Ithaca. The benefit is that it preserves the city’s tree canopy and enhances green space and environmental/beautification goals. The drawback is that private property and homeowners may not like being told they have to go through regulatory review and pay fees to remove larger trees on their properties. If a tree is severely damaged by a storm or otherwise comes down on its own, it is eligible for an “imminent hazard” exemption for removal.
“The purpose of this private tree amendment is to preserve urban tree canopy for the benefit of all in the Ithaca community; address tree removal related to in-fill development; create a City of Ithaca Tree Fund to address inequality of tree canopy distribution; promote a diversity of tree sizes and species which helps ensure urban forest ecosystem health; and prohibit property owners and developers from clear-cutting a property prior to submittal of a site plan review application,” said the memo from City Planner Nikki Cerra.
A vote to circulate means that the ordinance as proposed goes out to various city officials, departments, local electeds, community groups and the public at-large for comment and critique. The legislation may be amended based on responses at a future PEDC meeting, and the committee may then vote on whether or not to send the ordinance to the full Common Council to consider implementing as law at their next Council meeting. However, city staff requested to hold off on a vote last night, and are hoping to use the next month for outreach and input-gathering from other staff and the public at-large.
As proposed, if a Significant Tree is cut down without permit, it’s a fine of $100/inch of trunk diameter. If it’s a Heritage Tree, it’s $300/inch. So your tree trimmers better be paying attention if this ordinance becomes law.
“You have to have something in case someone is like, ‘I know what the policy is, I don’t care what the policy is, I’m doing what I want anyway,’ and cutting down this 200 year-old tree with no permit. We have to have some way to deal with that,” said Grace.
The board was certainly open to a public outreach prior to vote. They mulled a summarizing of the key parts of the ordinance, so that it could be shared with the public without the public having to delve through the dense legal language and minutiae of the ordinance. The board remains supportive of the ordinance, but strongly encouraged a broad and accessible public outreach effort so that people don’t feel like they’re blindsided by proposed regulations and limitations about what they can do with large trees on their properties.
“Hopefully this will put (the ordinance) on a good track and it will come back to us in the near future,” said PEDC Chair Rob Gearhart (D-3rd). The ordinance will come back before the PEDC at a future meeting.
Ithaca Gun Smokestack Condition Assessment
The other item up for a vote was to solicit bids from qualified structure inspectors to see if the Ithaca Gun smokestack could be preserved, a topic that has engendered some controversy because members of the Common Council have found themselves at odds with the public. Initial, it was on the agenda as a vote to circulate, but it was misfiled and was intended to be a voting item to send to the Common Council. After some brief discussion, the PEDC decided to treat it as an item up for vote to send to the Council.
Back during the February PEDC meeting, the Committee reviewed a recommendation from the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) to partner with Visum Development Group, the developer of the former Ithaca Gun Company Factory site,
to commission an existing conditions assessment of the smokestack as stated within the provisions of the Development Agreement first approved with Travis Hyde Properties back in 2007, and reapproved this year.
The PEDC was initially reluctant to spend the $7,500 to $15,000 for its half of the assessment, believing the site’s history with guns and environmental contamination made the smokestack an undesirable historical relic. In response, city staff prepared a public outreach survey to garner feedback from the community on the city’s involvement with the preservation of the smokestack — and lo and behold, it was overwhelmingly in favor, much to the dismay of certain Common Councilors.
If approved, the assessment will provide cost estimates for the stabilization/repair of the smokestack as one of its features. However, the stack’s ownership by a private, for-profit entity (Visum) limits opportunities for grant funding to cover the City’s portion of the cost. One way around this is by transferring the smokestack and the chunk of land it sits on to the city or a non-profit third party for a $1 sum, and then the city or non-profit third-party can pursue grant funds for any necessary repairs.
If the money for the assessment is denied, however, the smokestack is solely Visum’s discretion, and it likely gets knocked down due to liability concerns. Ostensibly, if you think the stack has historic value, then you want to see the city pony up the $7,500-$15,000 to see if it can be preserved for the next generations of Ithacans. Non-profit Historic Ithaca gave its word of strong support during Public Comment.
City Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken was on hand to speak about the proposal. The final requested amount would come again before PEDC once a qualified assessor has been selected.
“I do think we should respect the other part of the community that it hurts, given what’s happened with our country and guns,” said Councilor Brown. “The angst and sadness that it brings to some is still a reality. How do we honor everybody’s feelings?”
“I recognize that this is the beginning of many steps and there are many opportunities to take it in different directions,” said Councilor Brock. “When the factory came down, there was no discussion at all over pride for the factory […] For lack of a better word, I am very triggered by this smokestack. I appreciate my colleagues who want to bring it on to Council. It’s not something I will be supporting.”
In the end, councilor Tiffany Kumar (D-4th) ended up being the swing vote. “We have the power to assign meaning, and how to dictate our own legacy. Even though my initial impression was different, there is such an outpouring of community support, that I do think it is up to us to ensure that the meaning we assign to it is, celebrating the patriotism and legacy of labor that it does have with regards to the city, to educate and start these good conversations. It could be a really good catalyst while acknowledging the voices that do feel uncomfortable with it.”
With a 3-2 vote, with Brock and Brown opposed, the full Common Council will consider approving soliciting a conditions assessment next month.