December 1, 2003

Density and Water

The Draft Comprehensive Plan makes some suggestions based on water and sewer systems that leave me wondering whether water and sewer are a blessing or a curse for a community. Given the taste of the water from the (barely functioning) well we still have, I'm very happy to have water to my house; the questions are a little bigger than that, though.

I was surprised to see how little of Dryden actually has water and sewer service (map, 302K). The Villages have service, the area between Varna (from about Stevenson Road) to the east-west part of Hanshaw Road and Route 13 has service, and there are a number of small systems. I really would have thought the Ellis Hollow area would have water, but I guess all those new houses are on wells and septic.

Last year, I paid about three times as much in taxes for the Turkey Hill Water and Sewer Districts as I pay in actual water and sewer bills. I need to look into how those taxes work sometime, but I'm guessing that's behind at least part of the reluctance to put water and sewer lines in throughout the town.

The benefits of that water, apart from flavor, however, aren't too clear. There seems to be this notion that water infrastructure should be an invitation to high-density development:

The residential development density proposed for the hamlet areas is an average of 8 dwellings per acre. As with the Suburban Residential areas of the future, the Hamlet areas would be comprised of several types of residential zoning districts with varying maximum allowed densities. Allowable lots size may be as low as 6,000 to 8,000 square feet where municipal water and sewer service are provided. (54)

I'm not sure what Varna's current development density is, but I suspect it's less than 8 dwellings per acre. Eight per acre seems more typical to apartment complexes and maybe townhouses than it does to the indvidual homes which still dominate the Varna landscape. To me, this seems like an invitation to turn Varna into a collection of apartment complexes and duplexes like the "Lucenteland" zone centered on Salem and Briarwood Drives in the Town of Ithaca.

Worse, this recommendation doesn't seem to recognize that recent developments in Varna combine small areas with lots of automobiles. Apartment complexes to the east, west, and south of Varna combine density with dangerous approaches to Route 366. It's great that people living there have water, but unfortunately we have to share ever more crowded roads as well.

As much as I'd like to see Varna get a 30mph zone and a "main street" approach to Route 366 instead of the current ever-widening highway, I suspect the combination of this plan and New York DOT resistance to treating Route 366 as anything other than a traffic corridor will mean that we end up with higher densities of automobiles traveling in ever more dangerous circumstances.

(It's worth noting that the plan also proposes significant expansions of water and sewer service (map, 315K), mostly around Etna, the Village of Dryden, and northwest of the Village of Freeville.)

Density can be a great thing, done right. I'd love to see Varna have a vibrant core with lots of pedestrians and stores accessible by car and by foot. I don't see much sign that increasing density to eight units per acre wherever there's water is likely to achieve that result.

Maybe the folks on Ellis Hollow are smart to stick with wells and septic systems. I wouldn't have guessed that result until reading this.

Posted by simon at December 1, 2003 8:41 AM in ,
Note on photos


David Weinstein said:

The most important idea behind planning for Dryden is the attempt to direct development to locations where the environment can handle it in a way that doesn't create damage to surrounding neighbors. One key aspect to that issue is the impact of development on local water sources. The availability of sewer and water means that development can occur without drawing down surrounding wells and without polluting groundwater. Consequently, areas with water and sewer can support higher density without this kind of environmental damage. Further, people are more attracted toward building in sites served by water and sewer. For a given individual seeking to build in Dryden, we would rather attract him or her to build in a location with less impact on the environment (such as in a hamlet like Varna) than a location with more impact, such as in the open space between hamlets. Further, the greater density we allow in a hamlet, the more people moving into Dryden we can theorectically attract into the areas of least environmental impact and away from the areas of more environmental impact. Of course, this argument discounts the environmental impact of having more neighbors and their cars surrounding our existing residents.

The idea behind "8 residences per acre" was to encourage new ideas and options for home-ownership in hamlets like Varna. We have to break the pattern that currently exists in which people who want to settle down in Dryden and invest in the community shy away from places like Varna (with obvious exceptions, of course) because of it's current run-down condition. The best options would be for people to buy our older houses and rennovate them, but that's not happening by and large......only developers interested in turning them into rental units are doing this.

So, we need new alternatives that developers might find attractive, and the creation of town houses was one idea. Eight town houses on a typical Varna lot (which incidentally vary between one and two acres) would be a less expensive option for home ownership that might attract new permanent residents without a huge investment from a developer.

The problem is that there is nothing in the plan that prevents developers from abusing this option by either buying up 10 acres (Steve Lucente just bought 12 acres) and making 80 units that wind up being rented while they are "waiting" to be sold, and suddenly we have an 80 unit apartment complex. That is why the changes that I have suggested, limiting the size of a development, need to be added.

I have also become unconvinced that 8 units per acre is a good target, so I have proposed reducing this to 4 units per acre. We have to remember that there is an impact just from increasing the density of a hamlet overnight, and I don't know anyone who wants to live squashed into an eighth of an acre. George Franz claims he used Belle Sherman as a template for this density, but I do not believe we can suddenly make Varna into Belle Sherman, and we run the risk of a much less desireable type of development occurring instead.

Wow. That's a powerful response.

I agree that it makes lots of sense to put dense populations where there's water and sewage to keep them from damaging and poisoning their surroundings. I also think higher density, done right, could be good for Varna.

To that extent, I think we're both fairly happy with the draft plan. Moving beyond that, though, it seems like these principles, applied without safeguards, are likely to cause serious problems. To me, there are two large potential problems:

1) Greater density on an unchanged road structure - a serious risk, and not one that would necessarily improve even if 366 became more like a main street.

2) Developers who push the limits of what's possible under the law to maximize their profits rather than build a better hamlet.

While I suspect the plan in its current form may be good for Dryden, by concentrating dense development in certain areas, it looks like a recipe for further blight and less community in Varna and maybe Etna if it doesn't come with rules designed to prevent dense rental complexes and their accompanying impacts on traffic and community. I don't think it's likely at all that these proposals would make Varna more like Belle Sherman.

Varna could use some change, but I'm not sure that the kind of change the draft plan offers would be positive. It's very strange when services that cost extra tax money can produce effects that damage the community of people who pay for them. (Of course, landlords might be all that was left in the end, an outcome I suspect they'd like.)

You're right that renovation isn't happening by itself. I wish there was something like Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services ( ) out here. I know there's some state money available, though I think it's mostly for energy efficiency right now. I'm working on my own house, but that's just one former rental well away from the center of Varna.