January 15, 2005

Town hall and park lands

As I mentioned yesterday, one of the major issues at Thursday night's Town Board meeting was the purchase of land for the town hall, and the interest expressed by a number of board members in including recreation land in that purchase.

I don't oppose the purchase of the land, and think it may well turn out to be a good thing, but I'm very unhappy that the Town Board seems to find an opportunity each year to buy land out of the reserve fund and doesn't discuss it in meetings until the purchase is near or complete. Last year it was the golf course opportunity (which seems to have petered out), and this year it's recreation fields turning up in articles about the town hall land purchase but never discussed in meetings.

Possible land to be purchased
My best guess of the land the town may purchase for a new town hall and recreation.

In both cases I've enjoyed hearing Republicans express an interest in preserving wetlands, natural areas, and open space, but both times I've wished for more public discussion. Talking about what to do with a large parcel of land after you've bought it offers that public far fewer options than are available if you talk about what parcel you're buying and why.

(It might help if the public had more information about how much money is in the reserve funds, as spending those seems to be the preferred option in both of these cases - at least for the town hall, that part was planned. How much is left in the funds after these purchases? I need to do more research.)

Because reporting on myself is a nuisance, I've gone for transcribing that part of the board meeting from my recording. It's a lot, but it stays focused and I think is worth reading through. We started in Citizen's Privilege:

Simon St.Laurent: I just wanted to point to an item on the agenda here - I think it's the land purchase offer that was referred to in the Journal today - and say that I'd really appreciate some discussion of this that is not in executive session. It's been really strange attending all of these meetings, and then reading about these great recreation fields in the Ithaca Journal or the Dryden Courier but not actually hearing about it at the board meetings. So I think before you contemplate how much land you're going to buy and how much you're going to pay for it, it would be good to have a discussion of the 'why' in public so that the rest of the town can participate.

Erica Evans: I'm Erica Evans, Turkey Hill Road, and I want to speak about the same thing. I think that the Dryden town needs a better Town Hall. There's no doubt about that in my mind, but the playing field, and the rec field, and the nature trail, for the Town of Dryden... we have plenty of nature trails and we have rec fields and our highway superintendent says he doesn't have enough men to take care of the things that he needs to take care of now. How can he take care of more?

At the end of the meeting, when the board reached the land purchase offer, the discussion started up again, including a lot more people. All of the board members (Supervisor Trumbull, Councilmen Hattery, Michaels, Christofferson, and Stelick), Town Attorney Mahlon Perkins, Environmental Planner Debbie Gross, County Legislator Martha Robertson, residents Erica Evans and Ken Schlather, and myself all participated.

Steve Trumbull: Simon - I'd like to know what your concern is with this - I'm not going to get into a big debate about this, but...

Simon St.Laurent: Sure. I don't have a general opposition to the town having recreation land. I think they're a good thing, I'd like to see more of them; when I lived in the Town of Ithaca I used theirs.

But it seems like twice in the last two years we've had opportunities to purchase lands for recreation where the discussion was either in executive session or in the newspapers until fairly late in the process. We didn't actually talk about the golf course until it was quite far along, and in this case I've seen the Ithaca Journal had a two-line mention that there was a consideration of recreation in this purchase, and I called Bambi to ask if there'd been any action taken, because I left at the executive session, and there hadn't been anything of this, and suddenly it's in the paper. And then today's Journal has a really quite excellent article which I fully support with the pictures of all of you kind of stuck in different positions in the building and all of that... the reality of it is pretty obvious.

So my concern is that the town has been really clear about buying a new town hall and we need a bigger one. I think that's pretty clear. But there's no plan for this recreation stuff that I can find anywhere. Both the golf course and the town hall are kind of off the side of the Draft Comprehensive Plan discussion of recreation.

I'd love to see the town come up with a plan for buying property and doing something with it, but I really question this "Hey, we've got an opportunity here, let's buy it and use reserve funds to do it, and hey, this is all good." I think it needs a lot more discussion than that.

Marty Christofferson: I'd just like to say a couple things. One is, we've been talking about recreation ever since I moved into this town and there is mention of it in the Comprehensive Plan on what a shortfall there is.

Simon St.Laurent: Right.

Marty Christofferson: Two is, I think the intention of the board is not to do anything without having public input, but when we're negotiating land prices and purchases and things like that then sometimes you need to work in that arena in a confidential way, otherwise it can affect the purchase price. So I think we've had discussions and talked about working some way to find the best way to get a good price and to go through the process well so people have plenty of opportunity to comment.

Simon St.Laurent: I'm aware of those rules for executive session. I think, however, that you're violating the spirit of town government by keeping the discussion of the context in which you're making this purchase exclusive to those sessions. I think recreation is important, it's a critical issue that brought a lot of you to the board, it's a critical issue that gets people contacting me about Living in Dryden, but before you go ahead and buy park land, I think you have to a context for "Is buying park land something we're going to do throughout the town, is there a plan for particular parks, how do you want to coordinate this with other park systems in the town.

Steve Trumbull: I don't think this is an end - I think it's a beginning. It's been sitting on the docket for nine, ten, twenty years as far as the town hall's concerned. Nothing's been done - talk, talk, talk, talk. Nothing. We're trying to get something done. If we have to do this to get things kicking, to get some recreation land, that's what we want to do.

We don't have recreation land. Everyone says we've got recreation everywhere - we don't own recreation land. We do not have fields, or whatever we want to do with this, all right - that's our concern. It could be the beginning of something greater. We're not going to stop and say we're not going to buy land in the middle of the township, on the west side, for more. I personally think it's necessary that we do get some land to do this. That's my personal opinion.

Erica Evans: The rest of us in the Town of Dryden aren't going to come out to the Village of Dryden for recreation.

Steve Stelick: I don't want to speak for Steve here, but I think people have got to remember that this is something that's very short in time as far as talking about real recreation land and getting people that are actually involved. I see this as ... just the beginning. If you look at our Comprehensive Plan that's in place right now, we're talking about having a place up by Yellow Barn Road, that's in the comp plan, and I think there's one over in George Junior Republic... in the fields. I just see this as the beginning.

I don't see this as - everything takes a lot of time in this government, but it's a beginning. I don't see it as the end, I don't see us saying that just because we have picked this one side, to start, there are preliminary conversations with Ellis Hollow Community Center, about putting some fields down there, working with them. It's in its infancy, and it's going to take time. But I think this is a good beginning.

What we're taking here, once it's all out in the open, is there's a wetland over here that's considered endangered. We're looking to use that, work with the school district on it, we've talked with Thoma Development, there's some grant money that's out there, there to use to put a trail out there. To me, it's something that from the three-plus years that I've been on the board, it's one of the visions that I had - it's a beginning. But I don't see it as just being east-west north-south. It's just one part of this, but it's going to take a lot of time to flesh it out.

Erica Evans: Who's going to take care of it?

Steve Stelick: That's one of the things we have to consider.

Mike Hattery: I think that something we should clarify here is that something doesn't become parkland until it's dedicated as parkland. And so there's been a lot of discussions, but the key thing is that we're buying land for a town hall. The other relevant issue for the planning is we want to be good neighbors. This was a zoned residential area and so we want to make efforts both in reworking how the highway facility is oriented as well as in the construction of a new town hall that we provide adequate buffering and an easement for what is an existing zoned residential area.

Recreation opportunities is kind of a very second, minor consideration. The primary moving force is we are building a town hall.

Simon St.Laurent: I suppose you could say you're misquoted, but it certainly doesn't come off that way.

Mike Hattery: I wasn't quoted...

Simon St.Laurent: You weren't. I guess it's good to hear that you've been having these discussions, but how long have these discussions been going on and how much public - how much actual opportunity for public comment has there been in the time period of these discussions?

Mike Hattery: Well, I think this discussion has gone on before this current board. There's been public discussion about a new town hall for several years... I read about it in the paper.

Simon St.Laurent: Correct, but the recreation-specific issues of a town hall -

Mike Hattery: We're buying a town hall. That is the primary issue regarding this land purchase.

Erica Evans: Nobody's arguing against that.

Martha Robertson: Do you have maps of the site? I don't have any visual image of how much land you're talking about, and where the town hall would go.

Steve Trumbull: We can't tell, until we make the deal.

Martha Robertson: Can you tell us how many acres?

Chris Michaels: Martha, we haven't - it's hard to express how far away we are from making a purchase in the sense that we're still what we're going into executive session for is to figure out if we want to make an offer and on what terms...

Ken Schlather: Is there much of a difference in the size of the acreage needed if you had whatever you want for a town hall being good neighbors and all that, versus having that plus the recreation area. Because if the focus is on the town hall, then I guess part of the issue is - I mean if you don't have a comprehensive plan for recreation - if you don't have a recreation plan in place - then to say this is just a beginning, that's very nice, but I think you do have to be thinking about what are your priorities with respect to recreation. It might well be that the best thing to do is to do what you're proposing, but it's not really clear to the rest of the population here whether it is or not.

Simon St.Laurent: I guess the other thing that I'd like to see, and maybe should have happened after the golf course discussions, was that the town really does need to have a better idea of its policy for purchasing land for recreation that's discussed before the actual land purchases come up and you have to go into executive session. We lost that opportunity last year. It was definitely on people's minds, but as the golf course faded, I guess so did the rest of the discussion.

Debbie Gross: I have the map here from the Comprehensive Plan...

Steve Stelick: The Comprehensive Plan, you're talking about the one at George Junior and up by Yellow Barn Road, is that what you're talking.

Debbie Gross: It shows spots where there's a proposed community park.

Martha Robertson: Isn't it... the negotiation part is an issue of price. Wouldn't it be public information that you're looking at this particular spot, and it's five acres, and here's where the town hall will go - why is that executive session? The price is executive session, but not...

Mahlon Perkins: It's a function of the size of the parcel... [inaudible]

Martha Robertson: Right, but don't taxpayers have a right to know what you're looking at? Obviously if you're going to buy a small piece it's a smaller price, and a large piece, it's more money but that's not.

Mahlon Perkins: It's not as simple as that.

Martha Robertson: I don't think - people aren't asking what the price of this is going to be, I think people are asking what you're talking about doing.

Simon St.Laurent: I have another question, which this kind of raises, which is that I think the Journal was talking about buying this out of reserve funds for the town hall. Are those funds actually dedicated to the town hall, is there an issue if they're spent on recreation lands in conjunction with a town hall... I don't have any understanding of that, but I just want to be clear.

Steve Trumbull: There's a fund balance of money for the land. It doesn't say recreation land, just land.

Mike Hattery: And as I mentioned earlier, something doesn't become recreation land until it's dedicated. That would involve a planning process, that would be very open.

Steve Trumbull: If we don't turn it into recreation, at least we'd have some land, which we don't have now, and in the future, we could do something which everybody agrees on. We don't have the land at all to do things with.

Martha Robertson: But as Ken said, if the price is going to be more, if it's a bigger piece. If you spend money on a chunk of it for recreation, if you turn it into fields now or later, then obviously that would be money that is already used up, and couldn't go for a different priority - and I don't know how much is available altogether...

Mike Hattery: Of course. And the relative magnitude of that is also a judgment call.

Chris Michaels: I think you're making a... I'll go further than that. I know you're making an assumption about negotiations and the variables that can go into a real estate purchase that aren't always borne out in this situation. I think there'll be plenty of opportunity when we start talking about what we're going to do with those lands, and the plan.

In every one of our recreation projects we've brought in consultants, had lots public hearings, comprehensive plan, I really do believe that the town is looking at a very wide recreation program in terms of the things that have been on our agenda and what we've been spending our time on. We've been talking with Ellis Hollow Community Center, about the trails projects, these guys meeting and picking a trails consultant and looking at.. Jack's already looked at some landscape firms to look at some of those issues already.

There's been a lot of work put in as to what would a town hall site look like, and what would the town hall look like, and talk to, address, discuss for years now, and I think a tension is developing all of a sudden as we've been talking about this for years and years and years and now the town looks like we might actually be doing something. I appreciate that that comes as a surprise -

Martha Robertson: The surprise is not the town hall. The surprise is that you've made a decision - you're about to make a decision on recreational lands in an area where there are already school district fields, etc., it's not -

Chris Michaels: I think that's a mis-impression.

Martha Robertson: Well then, enlighten us.

Mike Hattery: It's exactly the way I stated it earlier. We're purchasing land - we are exploring the purchase of land - for the town hall and we want to make sure that that site is adequate for the kind of neighborhood that the land is being purchased in, so we don't have any undue impacts. In fact, it's more of an enhancement to a residential area. And because of - land doesn't always come in the size parcels that are the way you need it. Because of that, there may be an opportunity for other uses, and some board members would like that to be recreational.

Martha Robertson: May I ask what the status of the Ellis Hollow request is?

Chris Michaels: Last I knew, Rick [inaudible]

Steve Stelick: Basically, the request was $50,000 to upgrade the pool. That's been it.

Martha Robertson: And there was another part of that for fields, a separate request about fields.

Chris Michaels: As far as I know, we haven't done that. On my end, in talking to the representatives from the Ellis Hollow Community Center, I gave them the numbers and the people they should be contacting here [inaudible]. Are we ready to go into executive session?

The board went into executive session at this point, and about a dozen people stayed to see the result.

Mike Hattery: Whereas the Town Board has conducted an exhaustive search for a suitable site for a town hall, including all areas of the town and whereas ELM Acquisitions Corporation has indicated a willingness to entertain an offer from the town for land adjacent to the existing town properties on East Main Street, resolved that the supervisor is authorized to execute an offer for purchase of parcel from Elm Acquisitions Corporation for the construction of a new Town Hall building, and we have further resolved that within 30 days of acceptance of such offer, the Town Board will schedule a public meeting on the acquisition with appropriate notice to the public, and be it further resolved, that the financing of such acquisitions shall be solely from surplus funds.

This resolution passed 5-0 without further discussion, though there was a bit more after the vote:

Martha Robertson: Can I ask what the size of the parcel is?

Chris Michaels: You can ask. We'll hopefully have an offer and then obviously a public meeting where we'll discuss all that, the other sites we considered, and what our plans are as far as the next step for any planning: the siting of the hall and any other facilities.... once we have the terms worked out.

There will undoubtedly be more to discuss when the public meeting is called, though a big decision about where the town should buy land for recreation has pretty much already been made.

I'd also like to note one mistake I made, though the response of the board members suggests that they hadn't contemplated it closely either. I'd thought the current Future Park & Transportation Improvements Map (300KB PDF) from the Draft Comprehensive Plan showed all of the proposed town parks outside of the Villages, but there's actually an asterisk by the Town Hall inside the Village of Dryden boundary. Given that no Town Board member raised this issue, even when Debbie Gross offered them the map, I'd guess they hadn't looked at the plan to see if this project fit its expectations.

Update: By reader request, I colored the names of speakers to indicate Town Board members and town employees.

Posted by simon at January 15, 2005 5:05 PM in , , ,
Note on photos


Dave said:

Speaking of a discussion on Dryden recreation - - this blog post report from a January 2005 Town Board meeting makes me again wonder how much of the recreation master plan (now in the works) was put into place by the town hall land purchase 3+ years ago. I'm looking at the Map 5-2 from the town's comprehensive plan and I hope it makes an appearance next Thursday at the discussion meeting. We do need parks - as many as ten of them - it would be great if the larger community park was centrally located and the neighborhood parks (9 of them) were planned throughout town.