Or, to put it another way, the County Legislature voted 8-7 to oppose a law that would have required citizens to have a grand 24 hours of access to information before their government took action on it. I mean, you know, it's obviously fun to speed-read documents during a public hearing and develop reasoned responsed to them before elected officials vote.
Why would legislators vote to oppose such legislation? Because it's "an unfunded mandate". Never mind that it's a mandate to actually communicate with their residents, that the costs of such things are going to be rounding errors in most budget processes. It's time to stand up to Albany by making it harder for local residents to participate in local decision-making.
I protested loudly when our ever-more-random Governor vetoed the legislation in question, and I can't help but marvel that our county legislature - supposedly progressive folks who encourage residents' participation in our government - would repeat such a completely obnoxious statement about the participation of citizens in government decision.
At a time when fewer and fewer people - left, right, and even center - trust their government, this is completely the wrong signal to send. We need to start making this information public by default, shared with the public when it goes to elected officials, rather than public by request, placing critical information on only a few desks.
The article doesn't say how our local Dryden legislators voted, and it doesn't seem to be on the county web site yet that I can find. I really hope they had more sense than the majority of their peers.
Further update: Well, some days even the people I support vote against my position in droves. County Legislator Mike Lane moved and voted for this, and County Legislator Martha Robertson voted for it. County Legislator Brian Robison, whose district includes the northeastern corner of Dryden by McLean, voted against it.
Cathy Wakeman leads her Dryden Town Talk column with news of the meeting tomorrow night to get the Dryden Community Garden going:
The newly formed Community Gardens, an outgrowth of Dryden Solutions, will share its progress at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 3 at the Community Café's Open Meeting Night. The site has been selected and divided into 10-foot by 10-foot plots, and planting is beginning. If you need space for a personal garden, or want to join the growing trend of planting for giving to food pantries, there are like-minded gardeners making it happen in Dryden. Come to the Café, at the four corners in the village, to catch the vision.
She also notes the Freeville Family Fun Fair this Friday at Reach Out for Christ Church, the cows gathering at Time Square in advance of the June 12th Dairy Day, a Parents' Night Out, and the return of the Dryden Area Intergenerational Band and Chorus.
Also in today's Journal: Beware the Giant Hogweed. It can burn or blind you.
So developers promised to keep a chunk of land undeveloped, set up a non-profit to do so, and then vanished, without bothering to pay the taxes. The county eventually foreclosed on it, and now the county is preparing to auction it. The neighbors, of course, aren't happy, even though the land would be hard to develop.
As the Town's zoning policies move toward allowing conservation subdivisions, in which just this kind of land preservation is encouraged, we'd better make certain that this isn't going to be a recurring nightmare. I suspect that we have better standards for such things in 2010 than they had in 1989, but it would be great to see all that explained.
Update: The parcel wasn't auctioned:
An appeal had also been made to Tompkins County legislators the previous week regarding another parcel, a 25-acre wooded lot in Dryden that neighbors wanted a chance to preserve. It was taken off the auction block as "redeemed" after the owners made a payment.
There's also a notice for the Freeville Family Fun Fair.
The Dryden Community Garden by Town Hall is getting underway, but now they need to build a critical component: the fences.
On Sunday, June 13th, from 1:00pm to 5:00pm, they'll be installing 60 posts and 600 feet of fencing. Volunteers are welcome, as are people with trucks, as standing in the bed of a truck makes it easier to get the posts started.
Today's Ithaca Journal reports that the Tompkins County Dairy Princess for 2010 will be Lacey Foote of Dryden, crowned at an event last month celebrating ten Dairies of Distinction in Tompkins County. Three of those are in Dryden, including the Beck Farm, for its first year, as well as Lew-Line farm and Millbrook Farm, for their 25th and 26th years respectively.
I first started writing Living in Dryden because the 2003 local elections taught me that many people had little idea of what was going on around them. It wasn't just that they were too busy or uninterested to find out - that's normal in a busy world - it was that it was frequently difficult to find out.
Even though the Ithaca Journal was a far better paper in 2003 than it is today, most Dryden news went unreported (or at times, misreported) in its pages. The Dryden Courier had more thorough weekly Dryden coverage, but is still a Dryden/Lansing/Groton mixture. At least it hasn't declined. The Cortland Standard's coverage is often excellent but occasional, and their delivery only reaches the east side of Dryden.
It isn't just the media, though. I moved into my house right after an election in which the incumbent supervisor, Jim Schug, had questioned why anyone would want to read Town Board minutes on a website. For that one comment, I was delighted he'd lost - replaced by Mark Varvayanis, who had insisted that Town Board minutes should reach the Web. Fortunately, the Town's website has continued to improve, covering more and more each year.
Why do these things matter so much to me?
It may have something to do with my two years delivering papers in high school, or something to do with my twenty years of work on computers and hypertext, which transform our ability to actually get this kind of information out cheaply. It might have something to do with my mother's time on the school board, which saw a steady flow of large piles of paper delivered to our house.
One moment, though, really crystallized things for me. I grew up in a wonderful city not too far away, but a place dominated by a firm that responded with outrage when the local paper (rightly, I believe) dared question its prospects. I knew then that returning to Corning would be difficult. It simply didn't make sense to live in a place where a company, especially a company a town depended on, believed it had the right to control the flow of information.
Ever since then, I've taken the willingness to share information as a key sign of just interested those who have power are in those around them who depend on them. It doesn't have to be outright abuse to make me shake my head - there are many kinds of non-cooperation that can be strikingly effective in smothering conversation and changing the rules of the game. When I see people with power trying to avoid disclosing information that has an impact on their neighbors or constituents, I'm automatically suspicious. I'm not surprised that the opposite of transparency is usually corruption.
Valuing openness is one thing, though. Actually increasing the flow of information is much more difficult. Government and companies certainly publicize some of their actions very well, but most information, even if it's available, requires a request. Not only does it require making a request, it requires knowing what to request, and sometimes when to request it.
Living in Dryden, though not as busy a place as it once was (sorry!), continues to be my way of encouraging that information flow, of making sure that public information is available and stays available. I hope this site encourages people trying to find their way through a strange mixture of not enough information and too much information, letting them find what they need and teaching them how to find more.
It's not all about government or corporations, of course - there are many other important things in Dryden. Making sure information gets shared, though, is at the heart of why I do this, why I participate in politics, and how I hope to help build our community. Knowing more about the place you live in and how it works can change your perspective on what's possible.
I'm very very glad that the Dryden Democrats didn't schedule a highway clean-up this weekend. Pickup on those orange bags might take a while, and they don't improve sitting in the sun and rain.
Dryden Dairy Day was definitely a hit this year - reasonable weather, large crowds, a busy parade and lots happening in Montgomery Park.
Ralph, a standard poodle, will be honorary Mayor of Dryden until next year, when Kiwanis holds their next fundraising "election".
In more traditional politics, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton has a Republican challenger, and there's a look at Democratic federal and state primary challengers.
The editorial is a reminder of the designation of Route 38 as the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Highway of Valor. They'll be having the second annual Tribute Ride on July 17th.
When you get people talking about community, you pretty much always hear the magical word "neighborhood", often strengthened as "real neighborhood". Neighborhoods are tricky to create, whether in a city or, as in Dryden, strung out along roads or clustered at intersections. Though Jane Jacobs focused her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities on cities, many of its lessons reverberate for smaller places as well:
Let us assume that city neighbors have nothing more fundamental in common with each other than that they share a fragment of geography. Even so, if they fail at managing that that fragment decently, the fragment will fail. There exists no inconceivably energetic and all-wise "They" to take over and substitute for localized self management... (117)
To accomplish these functions, an effective district has to be large enough to count as a force in the life of the city as a whole. The "ideal" neighborhood of planning theory is useless for such a role. A district has to be big and powerful enough to fight city hall. Nothing less is to any purpose. To be sure, fighting city hall is not a district's only function, or necessarily the most important. Nevertheless, this is a good definition of size, in functional terms, because sometimes a district has to do exactly this, and also because a district lacking the power and will to fight city hall - and to win - when its people feel deeply threatened, is unlikely to posess the power and will to contend with other serious problems. (122)
Neighbors who develop this power aren't necessarily well-liked, of course. They've even been tarred by a notable planner recently as "as a special interest... not the community.".
Today I see a letter from Hanshaw Road residents, I believe mostly in the Town of Ithaca, unhappy with the County's plans for the road. In addition to the Highway Department and its changing plans, they single out their lack of power as a problem:
Our legislators side with the county highway staff, not those who elected them.
The stretch of Hanshaw Road in question, from Warren Road to the Dryden line, is a mostly pretty-looking drive, a place I lived right next to a decade ago in relative peace and quiet. Over the last few years, though, resident efforts to shape the development of their area have suffered defeat - first over Rocco Lucente's Briarwood II plans for far more development, and now with continued frustration on this.
New York does a better job than most states - and takes a fair amount of flak for it - in making sure that the voices of small areas can be heard. We have lots of tiny municipalities who felt the cost of their incorporation was worth it for the added control, and process that requires that the public be allowed, often even invited, to speak.
As great as all of that is, it's somehow not enough to defend against those who want to encourage more growth, more traffic, often more speed. The not-quite-a-political-unit nature of the neighborhood means that neighborhood voices will always have a difficult time coming together, and a harder time influencing decisions.
Today's Ithaca Journal reports on the farewell given 24 retirees from the Dryden schools who accepted an early retirement package.
I went to do some more research on nodal development, and was surprised to find it didn't have a Wikipedia entry. The closely related Smart Growth, New Urbanism, and Transit-Oriented Development all have entries...
So I tried Google. Much to my surprise, the first page of ten entries includes three documents from Tompkins County, two documents from Oregon, two documents about plants, and one document about music software. The very first entry is my fairly skeptical take on the subject. (I've grown more skeptical since - more on that soon.)
Recent planning conversations, notably the 13/366 Corridor Study, the draft Dryden zoning, and more recent discussions of Varna, seem to suggest that popularly requested businesses - grocery stores, pharmacies, the ever-popular dream of a 24-hour diner, and similar retail - appear when there is a concentrated enough cluster of residents to serve.
The more I've thought about this, though, the less true I believe it to be, at least for hamlets like Varna. That's based on both a survey of local history and looking around at what currently works.
The Goodrich history describes some industry in early Varna, the same kinds of businesses that were scattered all over the Town. Grist and saw mills that took advantage of Fall Creek's power as well as a tannery and distillery were there for a while, but most of the businesses mentioned drew their power from the road, not the creek. A tavern, a hotel. Wagon shops, blacksmith, and post office. O.T. Ellis, a merchant prosperous enough to offer printed business cards that turn up today from time to time, and other stores. A distribution center for clock peddlers. Horse-trading that reached all the way to New York City.
Today, I'm not surprised when I see people from Etna and Trumansburg at Autoworks, or Ithaca residents at Varna Auto Service. The karate studio isn't serving just Varna residents, and the farmstand at Forest Home Drive is set up to attract people driving by. In one recent conversation about Varna, the gas stations on the 13/366 overlap came up as examples of local businesses doing well without much of a neighborhood. They seem to be the rule rather than the exception. On the 13/366 overlap, while there certainly are residences, not all of them immediately visible, the gas stations collect much of their business from the road, and the other businesses there are destinations worth driving to.
It is, of course, true that Varna had a time in the 1960s when it had a lot of small businesses commonly associated with denser areas: a grocery store, a pharmacy, a liquor store. Those functions have all migrated to East Hill Plaza, which serves a much larger area, now that people have grown willing to drive longer distances to get larger selections. I suspect, though, that the other reason that Varna's retail golden age came to a close is that Route 13 moved to its current location, and the former major highway became a more minor commuter road, the back door to Cornell.
Making downtown Varna a business center again is possible, though challenging. The strength of Varna businesses has been and likely will continue to be the road, even as that same road creates noise, danger, and decay. Successful businesses could cater to commuters - say, a coffee shop on the north side of the road, where morning commuters could stop easily, and businesses that cater to those headed home on the south side. The 24-hour diner, though, probably has to go on the 13/366 overlap or just on 13, where it might draw enough passers-by to sustain it.
Higher energy prices and reduced willingness to drive could change these calculations - but given that these patterns date back to well before the automobile, I'm not sure that the fundamentals would change.
Even if Varna doubled from its current population of 679 ("downtown Varna") or 976 ("Greater Varna"), or if its maximum density climbed from around 5.2 units/acre, I can't see these realities changing. Discussions for Varna II have included "something like a Byrne Dairy", which even at their largest are still more like convenience stores than groceries.
"After you densify" is a common answer to a lot of resident questions about planning and commercial development. The carrot of new businesses often gets held out as a way to encourage residents of existing nodes to accept lots of new development. Unfortunately, the more I look at it, the more false that seems to be. It seems to take a model that works in cities, where large pedestrian-friendly areas have businesses more focused on local residents, and casts that vision into far more rural areas where businesses have always behaved differently.
(Intriguingly, a meeting on transportation went beyond the focus on business to suggest that carrots such as removing the passing zone in Varna and reducing the speed limit would be rewards for increasing density. Somehow, though, the New York State Department of Transportation actually fixed both of those issues without demanding new development first.)
The Ithaca Journal reports that Dryden High Eagle Scout Ajax Hayes's project coordinated 20 people to build new houses for bats at the Lime Hollow Nature Center, supporting these useful bug eaters while encouraging them to stay out of the Nature Center itself. Update: There's more on this scout here.
Finally, the Journal looks at some problems arising from the ever-decaying finances of New York State. They examine what happens when non-profits don't get promised aid from the state, and there's an editorial about impact on TCAT. In other public finance-related news, it doesn't cost the state money directly, but the state is continuing a variance on jail beds that saves the county $250,000.
I couldn't make it to the Town Board meeting Wednesday - the Quakers were welcoming Konrad - but David Makar's posted a great summary.
Not exactly explained, no, but at least you can see how strange local zip code boundaries are.
I grew up in Corning, which was 14830. Painted Post was 14870, Bath 14810, and Hammondsport 14840. That sort of made sense, until I noticed Addison was 14801, wondered why Elmira was 14901, and of course Ithaca was 14850.
The strange boundaries between 14850 and 13068.
The map lets you see the various zip codes, including weird boundary issues like NYSEG's extending 14850 into the 13068 zone. I'd thought school district boundaries were strange, but these are even weirder.
Here's the text of the mailing sent out about tonight's discussion of a vision for Varna:
CHANGE IS COMING
READ THIS LETTER & COME TO A MEETING
VARNA RESIDENTS AND BUSINESS OWNERS
MONDAY JUNE 21 7 P.M
THIS IS A CHANCE TO LET YOUR VISION FOR VARNA BE HEARD
YOUR IDEAS ARE IMPORTANT!
June 9, 2010
Dear Varna Resident,
Several weeks ago, a group of Varna residents and local business owners gathered to discuss how we would like to see Varna develop in the future. This informal discussion led to consensus on several points. For example, the group agreed that:
We enjoy the rural feeling of the current hamlet. However, we understand that development is inevitable and support it as long as it occurs on a scale that does not unfairly compromise our quality of life and as long as we are allowed to have the largest say in what changes are acceptable.
Varna is not a problem needing to be fixed! There are many current aspects of the hamlet that make it a desirable place to live.
We are interested in development that would accommodate new commercial establishments, such a coffee shop, small grocery, or drug store. We believe there is already sufficient car traffic passing by to support such businesses.
We favor small-scale developments scattered throughout the hamlet, interspersed with single-family homes. We favor development that will increase the number of owner-occupied homes compared to rental units.
The group raised concerns about developer Steve Lucente's proposal to build 260 townhouses on property behind the Varna United Methodist Church. We agreed that the current density of 2.5 units per acre is best, but we would be willing to consider progression toward a density of 4 or 5 units per acre throughout the hamlet over the next 20 years. (4-5 units per acre is the density of the Hillside Acres manufactured home park.) Mr. Lucente's 'Varna II' proposal would result in much greater density --16 units per acre - and would likely impact Varna in significant ways, including traffic, safety, water and sewer use.
So, what happens now? FIRST, a meeting of the entire Varna community is needed. Does the rest of Varna agree with the ideas developed by the group that met this spring? A vision for Varna, created by residents, will help to give Varna a strong voice in decisions affecting the hamlet. What do you want Varna to be like in 5, 10, or 20 years?
A meeting for all Varna residents and business owners will be held at the Varna Community Center on Monday June 21 at 7pm.
SECOND, the Varna Community Association will invite Varna residents & business owners, the Town of Dryden Planning Board, the Town's planning consultant, Cornell representatives and Mr. Lucente, to come to Varna later this month. This meeting will be to publically state our vision for Varna, to hear what Mr. Lucente hopes to do, and to discuss how development in Varna can meet the needs of Varna's current and future residents and business owners. The Varna II project would require a special permit. Applications for such permits go first to the Town of Dryden Planning Board if the Town Board requests input; the Planning Board then can make a recommendation to the Town Board. The Town Board is the group that decides whether to grant a special permit. The special permit process for Varna II has not begun, so now is an excellent time to let your thoughts about development in Varna be heard!
Chair, Varna Community Association
That's a very messy headline, but there are lots of Ithaca Journal updates in and around Dryden:
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton wants gas drilling regulated everywhere as tightly as it is in the NYC and Syracuse watersheds. There's controversy over an anti-drilling film showing tonight, and unsurprisingly vast sums of money are pouring into lobbying over drilling.
County legislators, much to their credit, are considering letting someone draw districts lines who isn't running for office in them.
At last Wednesday's meeting, the Town Board approved a resolution supporting a state bill to establish a moratorium on gas drilling until 120 days after the EPA completes its study.
All four board members (Solomon, Sumner, Makar, Leifer) present voted for it, and they were going to send it on to legislators and other key officials in the conversation.
Last night, around 40 residents of Varna (and the Dryden Town Supervisor) gave up a gorgeous evening and came together to discuss what the future of the hamlet might look like. The meeting was preparation for a July 7th meeting in which both the Varna vision and that of developer Stephen Lucente will be presented, but the organizers (including me, a breakout group moderator) tried to keep the focus on what should happen in Varna rather than what might happen in Varna.
Jim Skaley opened with a brief presentation on past planning efforts in Varna and the relatively minor demographic changes the hamlet's seen since 1990. A few small rental complexes have opened over the past two decades, but there hasn't been much change overall.
After that introduction, there was some open discussion of possible futures for Varna before the group broke into five smaller gatherings. It was clear that some development was desired - mention of a carryout restaurant in the works was received warmly, despite concerns about parking. During the breakout session, groups focused on five questions:
Cohesive Community - What is a neighborhood?
Commercial Center - Do you want to see one in Varna? Where?
Pedestrians / Bicycles / Trails - How do we better accomodate people who aren't in cars?
Traffic & Transit - How can we ensure traffic and transit patterns that will accomodate growth in Varna?
Growth: How Much? How Fast? What kind?
I had a difficult time keeping my group focused on defining our own future rather than responding to Lucente's vision, but we did eventually reach conclusions fairly similar to those of the other groups. Jan Morgan took much more detailed notes and will doubtless put this together more formally for the July 7th meeting, but common notes included:
Gradual organic development and change
Resident investment in the community
The need for gathering places
Food as a common theme in commercial interests
Genuinely slower traffic
Better places to walk - sidewalks, trails, crosswalks
More controlled traffic - possible lights
Buses important, especially in winter
Infrastructure concerns - water, sewer, stormwater, roads
Avoiding bland - aesthetically pleasing
That is fairly general, but that's also the nature of broad planning conversations. After we'd gathered these things, Skaley showed a slide on the more concrete 2005 Comprehensive Plan's suggestions for hamlets, which was very well received.
Next step: the larger meeting, July 7th at 7:00pm at the VCA. Here's an initial announcement for that:
At 7:00 - 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday July 7, 2010 a joint public meeting on development in the Hamlet of Varna will be held between the Varna Community Association (VCA) and the Town of Dryden Planning Board at the Varna Community Center at 943 Dryden Road.
The two hour meeting will be divided equally between presentation/discussion of the Varna Community's vision for development , and developer Stephen Lucente's Varna II housing/commercial development proposal.
We hope you will be able to attend.
Sincerely,Arthur L. Berkey, Chair
Varna Community Association, Inc.
(An earlier, less formal, meeting in April had drawn 20 people at 1:00pm on a Thursday. There's definitely energy for this conversation in Varna.)
I was in the car when the area felt an earthquake, so I probably figured it was just a bumpy road. I still can't see earthquakes as a likely major disaster here.
Cathy Wakeman reports on all kinds of upcoming Dryden fun.
Albany seems intent on further tax craziness, this time proposing a property tax cap on municipal governments (including special districts), but not on school districts, which are 60% of the property tax burden. It all seems crazy to me, but since they seem to insist on making local governments pay for things the state once supported, I can't see them taking a saner path. (I'd really like to see state shift the tax burdens we have toward income taxes, but that's almost as unlikely as streamlining state government, something I'd like to see even more.)
I'm really marveling - gasping for air, actually - at this bit in an article on West Hill fire response:
Town board member Rich DePaolo asked how an increase of 4,000 residents around the hospital would affect calls for service, and if more equipment and personnel might be needed. Developments which may be proposed for West Hill are estimated to put between 2,000 and 6,000 residents in the square mile around the hospital, he added.
That's just West Hill - I know of another proposal in the City of Ithaca, Collegetown Terrace, that would almost double a development from 637 current beds to 1260 beds, and there seems to be a lot more activity in the City of Ithaca as well. (The county's population is around 100,000, and Dryden's around 14,000.)
I'm thoroughly confused as to why Tompkins County seems to be preparing for a massive housing binge just as the nation as a whole is trying to recover from one. It makes me wonder again about the business sanity of the proposed Varna II.
I'm a little happier with a Town of Ithaca proposal to study "nodal development and whether it could really work". I've been ever more skeptical of this idea, and I'm happy to see that question at least asked.
This morning's Ithaca Journal reports on Friday's Dryden High School graduation.
There's a lot going on in Dryden that I need to catch up writing about. For right now, though, it's time to pause a minute and put up some happy kid photos.
Reporter Nick Babel was at last Monday's meeting about development in Varna. The resulting article gets to a lot of the points raised, though most of the details come out quoted to me, and not to the many people who were at the meeting. Hopefully I'm a decent representative of the meeting's sentiment. Based on the group I was facilitating, I may have been too moderate.
If you're reading this long after the article was published, I think you'll still be able to find it here (5.4MB PDF).
(These are my full answers to the questions Nick Babel asked.)
Question: One of the key questions presented at this meeting was, what do you want Varna's future to look like. What is your answer to this question?
I'd like to see Varna be a stable community where neighbors know each other and at least a core of residents help provide continuity. It'll be hard to avoid being a place where people drive through, given the location, of course. It would be great, though, to protect residents from the traffic better while also finding ways to encourage at least some of that traffic to stop and stay a while.
Question: Are you opposed to Mr. Lucente's Varna II proposal? Why or why not?
I'm very opposed to the current proposal. It's not about building a neighborhood - it's about cramming as many similar rectangles into the parcel shape as possible. It's a recipe for bland sameness that's hard to imagine working at the prices he's suggested charging.
Between that sameness and the retaining walls he's proposed to make it possible to build that densely on the terrain, I have a hard time imagining this project contributing anything to the community except traffic. Given that traffic is already a big problem in Varna, that's not a good thing.
Question: What kind of development would you like to see in Varna?
It's a fun question because, to be honest, Varna hasn't exactly been growing rapidly, and it's not clear that there are good reasons it should grow. It's sort of near Cornell, but it's not that near Cornell. It has water and sewer, but it also has significant terrain and traffic constraints.
There's certainly room for growth, but it seems likely go a lot more smoothly if that growth is in smaller chunks that actually fit with the existing neighborhood. That could be townhouses, though in smaller chunks, or it could be detached housing as well. Maintaining existing properties better would have a huge impact on the community too.
It also seems to me like there are unused opportunities for businesses that could both draw some commuter traffic and serve local residents. (A coffee shop on the north, incoming commuter, side of 366 makes sense to me, for instance.)
I don't think we're going to achieve a traffic-calmed pedestrian utopia any time soon, unless gas prices really climb - and then we'll have other problems. I definitely think there are ways to improve things over time, though.