By Pete Angie
There is a debate going on in the Town of Ulysses. How much influence over a property owner’s rights should a local government take, and what is gained and lost through establishing that control? What is best for the future of a town, and who decides that? Those are some of the overarching questions facing the residents of the Town of Ulysses, and the members of its local government and associated boards. The Town has been in the process of the ambitious project of revising its zoning laws to bring them into accordance with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. The project started over two years ago but has not received widespread attention until recently, embroiling the community in controversy.
“If this law was in place in 2003 I wouldn’t be farming here,” said Chaw Chang, when speaking with Tompkins Weekly at his property, Stick and Stone Farm. Chang and spouse Lucy Garrison own over 60 acres of farmland in Ulysses which they purchased in 2003 and lease some more. Their residence, shop, packing barn and greenhouses sit prominently on State Route 96, and the farm employs six to eight full-time workers during the growing season and three to four full-time workers during the offseason. The farm hosts a popular distribution location for the Full Plate Farm Collective, and on days when members stop to pick up their share of vegetables, the dirt parking lot in front of the farm fills to capacity. Children and their parents pick u-pick flowers and produce in the fields, and neighbors catch up with one another, and perhaps even exchange recipes while selecting fresh, local, organic vegetables, many of which are grown on site. It’s the kind of scene that makes many people want to live here, and part of what makes Ulysses a special place to call home—a connection made with rural life on the way home from the office. Yet some of the existing features of Stick and Stone Farm would not have been permitted under the proposed zoning laws. Chang pointed to a loading bay that faces the street, which could not be built under the rules of the new law. He is certain that the new signage regulations if adopted will have a negative impact on a u-pick operation they are planning. Most egregious to Chang, however, are proposed changes to subdivision laws, which he views as an unfair taking of property value by the Town. Others feel the same, and yellow yard signs stating “Support your local farmers. No zoning update” have popped up in yards and fields all over town.
To understand the current situation requires knowing the context in which the zoning update is being undertaken. In 2009 the Town adopted a Comprehensive Plan, following public comment and input, which required the Town to bring zoning in line with the future land use maps and goals set forth in the Comprehensive Plan. “This is really the basis of the zoning update,” said Darby Kiley, Town Planner. This is not the Town’s first go around with changing portions of its zoning law. From 2009 to 2013 the Town wrote and adopted Lakeshore and Conservation Zoning Districts.
One lesson Kiley learned from that process was to hire a planning firm, which the Town did not have for those projects. Monies from a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) Cleaner, Greener Communities grant is being used to pay the Ithaca-based consulting firm Randall and West. The Zoning Update and Steering Committee (ZUSC), formed in 2015, is a five-member panel tasked with working with Randall and West, gleaning input from the public and other town boards, and creating a draft zoning document with the consulting firm. The members of the ZUSC are Town Supervisor Liz Thomas, Town Planner Darby Kiley, Town Board member Michael Boggs, Ulysses resident Sue Ritter, who works in planning for the Town of Ithaca, and resident Rod Hawkes, who previously served on the Planning Board and past committees for the Comprehensive Plan and Lakeshore Zoning. In addition to using the Comprehensive Plan as a guide, the ZUSC has drawn on the Agricultural and Farmland Preservation Plan (adopted in 2013), Tompkins County agricultural plans, and other guiding documents to inform their work. The ZUSC has held bi-weekly meetings that are open to the public since November 2015, and five public information meetings were held between February and November 2017, to explain the process, gather input, and present the proposed zoning changes. During the process, the Town’s Planning Board, Board of Zoning Appeals, Sustainability Committee, and Agriculture Committee provided input through resolutions and verbally at meetings. Despite the lengthy nature of the process, and efforts to incorporate the voices of stakeholders, some constituents do not feel that their needs have been considered, particularly in regard to agricultural subdivision.
“There’s a pattern of ignoring our work,” said Chang, who is chairperson of the Town’s Agriculture Committee. He expressed frustration that the suggestions the Agriculture Committee made to the ZUSC to use different and additional data to estimate development pressure were not taken into account. He stated that the other committees also had concerns about the data the ZUSC used, that it over-stated current residential development patterns on farmland. “We felt their analysis and the data they used was so poor we completed our own,” said Chang. How to handle future residential development in the agricultural districts of Ulysses, while conserving farmland and open spaces, is at the heart of the controversy. Currently, agricultural land can be subdivided into as many 2 acre lots as will fit in a parcel, and sold for residential purposes. Some farmers and landowners plan the future growth of their businesses, or even their retirements, around the ability to sell portions of their land. The proposed regulations drastically change the existing formula, essentially permitting only one residential lot, of 2 to 4 acres, to be subdivided per 15 acres of land. The financial implications of such a change are great. Chang feels that farmers typically will sell portions of their land that are not productive, and having the flexibility to do so can mean the difference between staying in business or not. The proposed regulations severely limit that flexibility. “They’re not looking at this from the position of someone who has to comply with this law,” Chang said. “This is an attempt to preserve open space at the cost of the people who own the open space.”
Krys Cail sits on the Agriculture Committee and is worried about what she sees as history repeating itself. A Ulysses resident since 1979, she and her husband own 24 acres of land and a locust tree plantation, to make fence posts. Several years ago half of her property was re-zoned a Conservation Zone, when the Town adopted that zoning designation. That portion of her land could no longer be subdivided for development. Cail understands the importance of protecting watersheds and the erodible soils and steep slopes on her property, but stated that “[t]here was a loss of value.” She believes that there are portions of her land that could safely support development, and wishes a more site-specific approach had been taken to the zoning of her lot. “You can simply have standards that require that people take the actual conditions on the ground and deal with them properly,” she suggested as an alternative. Cail wishes the ZUSC would make efforts to incorporate expertise from agricultural resources like Cooperative Extension, or the American Farmland Trust. Instead, she sees the current efforts at updating zoning as making the same mistakes of the past. “[It’s] a very punitive, very abstract cookie-cutter formula which does not allow [farmers] to differentiate which areas are not suitable [for farming] and which areas are.”
Striking a balance between property-rights and a long-term vision for the Town is a tricky business. Liz Thomas, Town Supervisor, acknowledges that there is vocal resistance to some of the proposed zoning changes, but also hears support from other residents. “I’m grateful for the farmers who are upset about this because it is bringing a lot of awareness to this,” said Thomas. The particulars of the current draft are the result of a group process and group decision making, Thomas pointed out, stating that she is not in favor of all of the provisions. “There are definitely things in there I agree with,” Thomas said, “and things in there I don’t agree with.” For example, Thomas feels the 4-acre size-limit on subdivision is too restrictive. Thomas sees the contentious agricultural subdivision changes in a broad context, however, having worked as a crop consultant for 15 years, and then worked on policy with the USDA in Washington, DC. She believes she understands some of the challenges that farmers face, and the need to sometimes use development as a means to survive. Thomas notes, though, that there are other ways besides zoning that the Town supports farmers. Farmland is taxed at a rate of about one-third of what residential land is taxed at, and farmers’ taxes toward fire and emergency medical services have been reduced. Thomas equates the questions town residents and town government are facing as similar to those faced during the debate about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or fracking, in terms of setting long-term goals and priorities, and asks “Do we want to preserve the best farmland to grow food?”
The zoning changes update more than just the agricultural zones. Office and Technology Mixed Use Zoning and Jacksonville Zoning are also part of the overhaul. Diane Hillman has been a Jacksonville resident since 1979, and recently volunteered to be a Jacksonville voice to the ZUSC for the remainder of the process. “What makes Jacksonville so special is you can see the echo of the past,” said Hillman. “The middle of the hamlet, what it was and what it could be, is really the reason many of us live here.” She sees Jacksonville as primarily a neighborhood, with some business potential, and feels the current zoning revisions focus too much on commercial development, and would like to see more to promote revitalization of the hamlet’s residential character. She will bring her insights, and likely those of her neighbors, to the ZUSC at future meetings.
The public comment period for the first draft of the zoning changes ended on Jan. 25. The ZUSC will continue to meet and work with Randall and West, and accept input from stakeholders and residents as it revises the draft. The membership of the ZUSC has also expanded to include one member from the Planning Board, Board of Zoning Appeals, Sustainability Committee, and Agriculture Committee. This is notably the first time a farmer will sit on the ZUSC. Kiley stressed that the current document is a draft that can be changed and that the Town is still open to comments. The ZUSC will eventually submit a final draft to the Town Board for review, which will trigger a new round of public comments and more public meetings. “I’m afraid we’re a long way from being finished,” said Thomas, who is hopeful the project can be completed sometime in 2018.
Further information on the project, including summaries and complete drafts of the proposed zoning changes, ZUSC meeting schedules, minutes for past meetings, and material from presentations can be found at ulysses.ny.us. Look for the Boards and Committees section at the bottom of the page, and select Zoning Update Steering Committee.