By Pete Angie
The Biggs Parcel is nearly 26 acres of county-owned natural land on West Hill in the Town of Ithaca, which may soon become private property. On March 18 the Government Operations Committee of the County Legislature voted unanimously to authorize the selection of a realtor and to move forward with marketing the land. The vote moves the county one step closer to divesting itself of the property, and comes at the frustration of some West Hill residents who are at odds with the county’s desire to see the land developed.
“We’ve taken a lot of time on this,” says Government Operations Committee (GOC) Chairperson Dan Klein. The county decided to sell the property about three years ago, and has been in favor of housing being built on portions of the property, while retaining some of the land in a natural state. Existing national, state and local laws require protection of the wetlands contained in the property, and an additional conservation easement of five acres was created along Indian Creek to protect that habitat, according to Klein.
The GOC has identified the remainder of the parcel as favorable for housing development for several reasons: it is on a bus line, close to a state highway, adjacent to one of the county’s largest employers (Cayuga Medical Center), close to downtown, and the surrounding area has already seen development such as the hospital, office buildings and the Overlook Apartments.
Previously the county had approved the land for sale to the developer NRP Properties, which proposed to build clustered affordable housing while leaving the majority of the land as green space. Discovery of wetlands within the parcel, however, caused NRP Properties to withdraw their proposal.
Leaving all of the land wooded and undeveloped is the goal of the Indian Creek Neighborhood Association (ICNA), which formed to seek alternatives for the property which would allow it to remain in its natural state. ICNA organizer Linda Grace-Kobas states that the land in its current form acts as a buffer against erosion for properties downhill, and she worries how development near Indian Creek would effect water quality in the downstream Indian Creek and Steep Slopes Unique Natural Area, and Cayuga Lake.
The ICNA also cites the importance of maintaining green spaces in the midst of development, the impact that extending water and sewer lines would have on taxpayers, and added congestion on State Route 96 as arguments against development. The ICNA has sought out the Finger Lakes Land Trust and made a proposal to the county’s Unique Natural Areas Committee, Grace-Kobas says, in the hopes of conserving the land, but to no avail.
“We hoped that the county legislators would partner with the community as we tried to create a conservation easement on the property,” she explains. “Unfortunately, the legislators are not willing to work with us.”
The GOC did forestall a vote at its Dec. 22 meeting on moving ahead with listing the property for sale, in order to give the ICNA until Jan. 15 to make a purchase offer on the land. The offer made by the ICNA was well below the most recent assessed value of the land—$340,000—and was rejected by the county.
“Those of us trying to save the woods feel that its value goes beyond market forces,” says Grace-Kobas. In a letter to the GOC Grace-Kobas and eight other ICNA members stated that the property is “…a haven for wildlife, a diverse ecological mix of woods, brush, creek and wetlands…”
Klein, who is a founding member of the Danby Conservation Advisory Counsel, has walked the Biggs parcel and has a very different assessment of the property. The land “does not have any special ecological significance,” he says, noting that this is also the assessment of the conservation organizations approached by the ICNA.
A realtor will be selected no sooner than May 4, from those that submit proposals.
By Pete Angie