Trumansburg housing project passes SEQR process

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The significantly sized affordable housing and market-rate housing project in the Village of Trumansburg formerly known as Hamilton Square, now known as 46 South St, passed an early step in the process at the Oct. 25 meeting but is hardly done yet. The Trumansburg Planning Board, after several months of deliberating, gave the project a negative declaration on the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR). A negative declaration means that the board has reviewed the SEQR questions and found that the project would not cause significant environmental changes.


As it has been from inception, this step in the process was met with mixed review from residents. The community group formed last year of residents with concerns about the project, Trumansburg Neighbors Alliance, had concerns not only about the decision but also about the way the board handled the SEQR process.


To better understand the SEQR process planning boards are offered special training to review what goes into the three-step review. The Trumansburg Planning Board did not take this training, said chair of the board, Jessica Giles, because they could not find a time that worked for all five of the member’s schedules. Instead, the board met for an hour and a half with the village attorney, Guy Krogh, to go over the SEQR forms and ask questions.


“I feel like it was sufficient,” Giles said. “I have not taken any other process so I can’t say fairly.”


For the duration of the SEQR review process, the Planning Board eliminated public comment at meetings. To voice their concerns, residents made signs to hold up while in meetings, waving them emphatically throughout the meeting.
“Because that’s what we needed to do, be together and go through all these things," Giles said of the elimination of public comment. “Though you’ll know, at every meeting, myself or someone else said ‘Please continue to submit all your written comments, we are reviewing them.’”


Comments from residents would have been helpful during the process only if residents had clear data that would have changed the findings of the applicant, the outside engineering firm hired by the village to review the project (MRB Group), the zoning officer, and the village attorney, regarding what is asked on the SEQR review form. Otherwise, Giles said it would have been time-consuming and shifted focus from what the board needed to do, which was to focus on getting through the SEQR process.


Giles argues that a lot of the comments, both verbal and written, that have been made about this project pertain to items that will be discussed in more depth during site plan review, which is the next step. One of the biggest concerns about the project is about a road being proposed to connect the site to South Street. Both its placement and the width, among other things, are concerns that residents want answers to now. Because the applicant, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) and architect Claudia Brenner, made significant changes to their application based on public comment and comment from the board, some residents wonder why the concerns about the road were not addressed earlier, as the application was being formed.


“The applicant puts in the application, and then we address the concerns,” Giles said. “The first part of addressing the concerns is to do the environmental review.”


Site plan, she argues, is where road concerns will really be coming up for discussion.


SEQR happens in three phases. The first is to determine whether or not the proposed project could have a significant impact on the environment. A project of this size, with 19 buildings making up 17 market-rate for-sale homes, 10 affordable for-sale townhomes, six affordable for-rent townhomes, and 40 rental apartments in a two-story building, and a proposed nursery school, was easily deemed significant enough to go through the SEQR process. The second part of SEQR is to go through all of the laid out questions covering possible environmental impacts in various capacities to determine if the proposal would have a moderate to large impact. Step three is to make a determination. Between step two and step three, the board changed their answers to certain questions from positive, meaning there could be a negative impact, to negative to the concern of some residents.


“Some of this is quantitative and some of this is qualitative,” Giles said. “And so, on the areas where we all on the board didn’t agree that it was definitely a no and had some sort of ‘Let’s just take some time and make sure we look into this.’”


Members of TBNA argue that the village must conduct its own review, a Village Environmental Quality Review (VEQR). Giles doesn’t agree. She argues that VEQR is not required, but was put in place in case SEQR was not sufficient.


“It’s not one or the other, it’s like the strongest thing that protects the village is what you need to do,” she said. “It’s not a separate environmental review process.”

At the Nov. 29 meeting of the planning board, public comment was reinstated. After an update from the applicant, the board voices some of their main concerns about the proposal. Adam Walters, the zoning lawyer for the applicant, told the board that what they don’t want to happen is that every month the board requests changes and the developers must go back and make changes that could have ripple effects. Instead, they would like to take all of the concerns and questions into account before making changes.

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