March 10, 2011

Pocket Moratorium in Varna

I'm still trying to figure out what happened during last night's discussion of a moratorium on Varna development. That's not because the conversation wasn't clear, but because the decisions reached make a confusing situation even more tangled. The Board's choice not to act (for now) will create even greater uncertainty for both Varna residents and prospective developers.

The Varna Community Association had requested that the Town adopt a moratorium that would restrict development in the study area for the Varna Master Plan for nine months, though the Town Board could remove it earlier. As described by Dan Kwasnowski, Director of Planning, it would halt projects of more than two acres or four units per acre. A hardship clause would have provided an opportunity for those who felt put upon by the moratorium to make appeals. (New York State has published a guide to Land Use Moratoria (176KB PDF), if you want a broader overview.)

Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner opened the discussion saying that she was "ambivalent - on the one hand I understand the concerns of the community, but on the other I worry that it takes pressure off" completing the plan.

Board member Jason Leifer questioned why the Town would put money into a master plan without taking steps to ensure it would still have value by the time it's completed.

Kwasnowski said that he didn't "foresee any major development being approved until the Master Plan is in place," but also noted that proposals could arrive that didn't require Board approval. The Varna Master Plan has been a little delayed by changes in financing and scope, and Town Attorney Mahlon Perkins noted that every moratorium in Dryden history has needed to be extended. After some discussion about how quickly or slowly a proposal could happen, and the Board settled on doing nothing until and unless someone shows up with a proposal - sort of creating a moratorium, but keeping it in their pocket.

The Board spent a fair amount of time discussing whether a moratorium would keep developers from participating in the Varna Master Plan, but so far as I remember no time on discussing its impact on residents' interest in participating.

There was some discussion of how surprised developers would be if they came into the office and found that there wasn't a moratorium but submitting an application might trigger one, and discussion of sending letters to the several people known to be considering projects in the hamlet area. Sumner noted that Tuesday's Ithaca Journal article was a warning, though I can't say it's exactly a Legal Notice.

Bruno Schickel found this capricious, noting the work Steve Lucente has put into his project, and worrying that this pretty much left developers in a state of uncertainty.

Much to my surprise, I agreed with Schickel, except that I see that state of uncertainty also extending to residents. So far Varna residents have been asked to invest their time in plans that the Board seems unwilling to do much about. The Town's past and current performance in the area has not exactly inspired confidence in residents.

The low point for me came at the end of the discussion, when Supervisor Sumner called an active community "a mixed blessing". In three words, that summed up why I question how interested the Town Board is in engaging with its own residents.

So where are we?

  • Developers are left to wonder about a Town Board that will likely - not certainly, but likely - pass a moratorium if they try to build anything large.

  • Residents are left to wonder about a Town Board that wants them to spend their time on yet another planning conversation, with no firm guarantee that the facts on the ground won't change between the start of that conversation and its conclusion. I suspect that residents will still participate, but will also be warier and less willing to give the Town the benefit of the doubt.

Legally, I doubt that a moratorium passed in response to a specific proposal will have the same strength as a moratorium passed before the arrival of that proposal. The Town Attorney seems to think it's fine, and I am obviously not an attorney, but a moratorium in support of a planning process doesn't feel like something best passed as a reaction to a proposal.

The one bit of "good" news is that the possibly wasted investment on the Master Plan is no longer $70,000 but a mere $40,000 plus staff time. No one said "Cornell", but it sounds like the $30,000 it had sounded like Cornell would contribute isn't coming, and the Town isn't interested in making that up. They've reduced the scope of the project to fit the budget, another not-so-strong sign of their confidence in this project.

At best, this is a muddle. It does nothing to build confidence in the Varna Master Plan process, throwing away an opportunity to respond to resident concerns while leaving developers wondering what's going on in Dryden. Sometimes annoying both sides of a conversation is a sign of a good compromise, but sometimes annoying both sides just annoys both sides.

Posted by simon at March 10, 2011 7:25 AM in , , ,
Note on photos