County in a Demo Bind over Center of Government
By Robert Lynch, April 23, 2023
Quite frankly, this was Jason Molino’s baby. But now Molino is gone, and the baby is bawling.
Months before the pandemic, Molino, the former Tompkins County Administrator, caught wind of two prime commercial lots up for sale adjacent to the Courthouse. And even though the County Legislature had months earlier laid down $1.8 Million for a plot of partially-vacant land a block away and tapped it as its intended site for a new multi-story Center of Government, Molino thought this new land looked better, a whole lot better.
For nearly two years, while most of us had COVID-19 on our minds, Molino worked in the shadows. He prodded the County Legislature and its key Downtown Facilities Committee to launch protracted—often tortured—negotiations to purchase both the Key Bank Building on the corner of East Buffalo and North Tioga Streets, and the “Professional Building,” the former Wiggins Law Offices, next to it. All the meetings were secret. I tried to squeeze those in the know to tell me what they knew. They wouldn’t. To whatever was happening behind those locked legislative doors, the public remained blind and deaf to it.
The story finally broke in August 2021, three months after Molino left for another job. It broke only because it had to. Tompkins County was buying the Key Bank Building for $1.7 Million and the Wiggins’ offices for $1.1 Million. The existing buildings would come down. The combined lots would become the new, preferred footprint for a county office building, the Center of Government. Jason Molino’s wish would be fulfilled. The deal closed months later. Earlier this month, Molino’s successor, current County Administrator Lisa Holmes, presented legislators a detailed PowerPoint of where things had been and where they might be headed. She offered little more than the wise among us already knew.
That was then. But now there’s a problem. It came to light when County Administration took its next logical step and drafted a resolution to deconstruct the old Wiggins’ offices as soon as current tenant leases expire next February. The problem is that the City of Ithaca may not let them do it.
“We are essentially saying we are going to deconstruct a building without a plan to construct a Center of Government in its place,” Holmes told the County Legislature’s Facilities and Infrastructure Committee last Thursday. “And that is a little different than where we started, and it runs us afoul of the city’s land use policies.”
The legislative committee took no action on the deconstruction resolution Thursday. Instead, after 45 minutes’ discussion over whether to move forward with the wrecking ball—possibly pre-empting City law—or instead rewriting environmental paperwork, the committee set a special meeting for April 25th to weigh its options further.
Relatively modern—built sometime in the late 1960’s—and not considered a “contributing structure” of any architectural significance, the stylishly-unique law office building lies within the DeWitt Park Historic District. That locational status gives Ithaca Building Department officials heightened scrutiny over what kind of structure would take its place before an owner could do anything to take the Wiggins building down.
Resolutions passed when Tompkins County bought the twin structures two years ago made clear the County’s intent to replace them with a Center of Government. But structural designs have never advanced beyond conceptual sketches. Nothing’s been said about how big or high the building might be or how ugly it might look. Nor, for that matter, has the Legislature passed a firm commitment to build the building at all. And Thursday’s discussion made plain that on that latter point, opinion remains divided.
“I will admit I am probably the least patient person on this Legislature,” Lansing’s Deborah Dawson conceded. “But this has been going on for three years. We need to fish or cut bait.”
Properties get purchased. Environmental assessments get drafted. Capital plans get written, Dawson noted. And in her opinion, when they were performed, “we made a series of commitments to build a Center of Government.” But yet, Dawson lamented, “every time we try to move this thing forward, someone, somewhere says, ‘Oh, no, no, we didn’t make that commitment; no, we need to take more time and consider it more….’ How many times do we make a decision and a commitment and then we back off and change our minds?”
Committee Chair Mike Lane had a ready reply.
“Deb, I know you’re impatient. You’re also the person who talks very strongly about being careful with our budget. I’m not ready personally to leapfrog into a $20-30 Million project at this point.” (Comments at the April 4th legislative meeting suggested the price tag could climb to $40 Million.)
“We haven’t decided to build that building at all,” Lane insisted. “At least I haven’t voted to spend any money to build it.”
“What more do we really need?” Dryden’s Greg Mezey asked. The Dryden Democrat proved impatient to get the wrecking crews moving. “We’re asking to move forward with the first step in the process,” Mezey reasoned, “Because you can’t have a new building with an old building on the site.”
“Do we need architectural drawings? Do we need to have another resolution? What do we need to have before we show that this is our intention?” Mezey asked.
But City rules are City rules. And County Planning Commissioner Katie Borgella suggested that Ithaca’s reluctance to sign off quickly on demolition stems from a City Hall hesitancy to replace an unwanted building with nothing more than a vacant hole.
“If it’s clear that there’s a Center of Government going to be built on that corner, then… I think you could probably move forward with demolition of the buildings on the site because of a higher government purpose,” Borgella told the committee. However, she cautioned, “They do have ordinances that you can’t demolish a building in the City of Ithaca without going through site plan review.”
“If you don’t have a clear County purpose of serving something, then you need to conform with (the City of Ithaca’s) land use rule, and that would require going through the whole demolition process that they have in place,” Borgella said.
Those with long memories will recall Ithaca’s misbegotten experience with Urban Renewal in the 1960’s and 70’s and should understand contemporary reasoning. Quick federal cash then led to the hasty razing of vast swaths of downtown, including landmarks like the old Ithaca Hotel and the former Ithaca City Hall. It left only blocks as vacant dust bowls, unreconstructed for years.
“The problem with the law building,” Borgella told the committee, is that you’re “taking something down with no clear plan for what you’re going to do with it.”
“And that’s the whole point of the City’s ordinances that they have in place,” the planner added. “They don’t want people speculating and just clearing off properties in the hopes that someone develops it in the future.”
“Yea, but we’re not just people, we’re the County,” Lane replied.
“What’s the test? Who’s the adjudicator?” Mezey asked in desperation.
Ultimately, that “adjudicator” could, in fact, be a judge. State law provides counties limited authority to overrule municipal land use restrictions, clout that Tompkins County could exercise at the price of poisoning relations with those in Ithaca’s government. Some at Thursday’s meeting suggested that an attorney specializing in land use law be brought into the conversation.
“All I’m looking for on this building is for us to dot our i’s and cross out t’s to whatever entity may put up a barrier to slowing this thing down.” Enfield-Newfield legislator Randy Brown,” told the committee on which he sits.
But in pointing out the false starts and mixed messages the Legislature has given over the years, Brown acknowledged, “The County’s purchased other buildings and it didn’t work out.”
And again, those sudden, seemingly spontaneous swings in Center of Government site-shopping sentiment can confuse those who review the environmental documents that may decide the “Professional Building’s” immediate fate, documents that’ll likely require a rewrite before the demolition resolution tabled by the committee Thursday ever comes up for a vote. Lane reminded members that both the former- and presently-preferred development sites were at separate times listed as a Center of Government’s prospective home. In neither instance, however, has the Legislature ever put up the money to match some politicians’ mouths.
And unlike some on the Facilities Committee, Randy Brown has yet to relegate the old Wiggins offices to the wrecking crane. He called Thursday for a professional evaluation be conducted first into the building’s potential reuse.
“It costs energy to knock a building down. It costs energy to put a new building up,” Brown said. “So I’d like to know if that’s a structurally sound building. That would help me.”
And Randy Brown also proffered the most novel idea of the morning. What about scattering space-hungry County administrative offices around, quartering them in easily-accessible rural schools, instead of concentrating them in a pricey downtown high-rise?
“There are buildings all over the county,” Brown claimed. “Every school has thousands of square feet of empty space where we could… reimagine how we provide services to our constituents and put them in the schools so they’re there working with the people.”
Brown said such a plan would save commutes to Ithaca, thus advancing the “Green New Deal.” And it would bring governmental services closer to the people. “I think this is a visionary thing,” Randy Brown proclaimed. “And building a building downtown doesn’t make sense to me right now,” he added.
Something tells this writer that Jason Molino would view Randy Brown’s idea as simply a vision step too far. Leaders like to build monuments to themselves. A side office in Enfield Elementary or in Newfield Central might win a national award, but it doesn’t cut it for most in the political class. Nonetheless, the prospect of a $30 Million—maybe $40 Million—downtown office building is giving some in Tompkins’ legislative chambers the jitters.
It’s not Jason Molino’s 2019 anymore. Babies do grow up.
Water, Land, and a Dirt Road
Breezy Meadows’ Impacts Perplex Planners, Pols, and Public
Analysis by Robert Lynch, April 20, 2023
“There’s no question that there’s a lot of people that have water problems in the Town of Enfield.”
Planning Board Chair Dan Walker to the Town Board, April 12.
“I’m not sure there’s much we can do.”
Enfield Councilperson Jude Lemke (same meeting)
Planning Board reports to the Enfield Town Board are usually cut-and-dried affairs; over in a flash. But April’s encounter proved much different. This time, Planning Board Chair Dan Walker took a full ten minutes short of an hour to answer—and to at times, agonize—over Town Board members’ questions concerning the controversial “Breezy Meadows Farm” subdivision. All the time, Breezy Meadows’ project manager Alan Lord sat (presumably) behind a zoom tile that bore his name. He never spoke a word.
“This is the biggest controversy that’s hit Enfield since the Black Oak Wind Farm,” this writer, Councilperson Robert Lynch, observed during his own turn to comment at a Planning Board-sponsored Public Hearing one week before the Town Board’s own April 12th Breezy Meadows discussion. “And I’ll tell ‘ya: We don’t have zoning, and we don’t need zoning to deal with this problem.” I had other plans. But whether those plans will work, we have yet to learn.
Breezy Meadows, New York Land & Lakes Development’s plan to subdivide the former John William Kenney farm between Podunk and Halseyville Roads into 33 building lots of varying sizes, has faced criticism ever since someone stuffed copies of its site plans in neighborhood mail boxes in early-December. Town Planning Board review of the 337-acre subdivision led to the April 5th hearing. After about eight people spoke, and as many as a score looked on to see what transpired, Planning Board members weighed the project’s merits versus its risks. They made no decisions that night. But Board Chair Walker signaled he might move adoption of a required Environmental Assessment at the early-May Board meeting, with subdivision approval to follow.
Nonetheless, one week later, after struggling to answer Town Board concerns about the subdivision’s impact, Walker backed off a bit.
“Right now, I don’t see a final approval coming at the May meeting,” Walker told the Town Board April 12th, “because we don’t have all the data in yet.”
Yet Walker made no promises. “The Planning Board is an independent Board. And we do follow the regulations of the State and our Town’s Site Plan and Subdivision regulations,” the Chairman reminded anyone who would listen. “We are an independent Board, as we do our due diligence. I think we are very careful about doing that.”
Exacting timetables aside, odds right now point in Breezy Meadows’ favor. While public opinion tumbles decidedly against the project, and while some Town Board members voice concerns, the key decision-makers in Enfield’s most contentious housing controversy either lean in the project’s favor, or simply accept its inevitability.
“I’m not sure there’s much we can do,” Councilperson Jude Lemke warned after Councilperson Lynch cautioned that a 33-lot rural subdivision could easily double or triple in density if lot purchasers ignore Land & Lakes’ intended deed restrictions and simply subdivide their parcels further.
“The subdivision meets all of the Town’s regulations under the Subdivision Regulations,” Walker advised the Town Board. “So we really have no basis for denying the subdivision.”
“Unfortunately, if they start to (further) subdivide all these properties, then we’re going to have to deal with the issue then, because today there’s nothing in our law that would prevent them from doing this project,” Lemke advised.
Transforming open fields into hobby farms, mini-estates, or equestrian pastures may jar the senses of those who remember what the old Kenney farm used to be. Short of a total ban on development, the town can do little to hold back some degree of progress. But to Breezy Meadows’ critics, concerns lie far deeper—in some respects, literally deeper. Foremost among the concerns of many is the impact 33 (or more) new homes would have on a water supply that just about everyone agrees remains marginal at best.
“We’ve always had problems with the amount of water for the household. To overlook that would be a problem,” Iradell Road resident Russ Carpenter told the planners’ Public Hearing. “I really think… if you’re going to have this much housing development, you really have to consider the Town’s putting in a water district of some sort,” Carpenter said, suggesting that public sewers may need to follow.
“We’re not going to have public water in my lifetime; probably (in) most of your lifetimes. We have to rely on wells,” Lynch answered. “Our neighbors cannot run out of water.”
At both the Planning Board’s hearing, and a week later before the Town Board, Lynch pushed for Land & Lakes Development to do the same thing that the ill-fated Black Oak Wind Farm’s developers had to do a decade ago, namely perform a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), not just the much more abbreviated “Environmental Assessment” Land & Lakes has already undertaken, aided by Walker’s assistance. Lynch would have Breezy Meadow’s developers focus on water issues; both the project’s impact on neighboring wells and also on water quality. “A full hydrological study,” I told the hearing, is what’s needed.
How much might such a study cost, Lemke asked Walker at the Town Board’s meeting. Walker guesstimated between $20,000 and $50,000 based on the developer’s need to drill a series of test wells at perhaps 4-5 thousand dollars per drill.
This Councilperson shot back, “It’s costing $20-50 thousand. The developer’s paying $1.6 Million for the land. It’s a drop in the bucket!”
But Dan Walker has repeatedly expressed doubt that water will be an issue, the chairman relying on the assumption that the Breezy Meadows’ lots, that would range in size from two to 32 acres, would be spread out sufficiently so that one owner’s well would not drain dry another, or far more importantly, anyone else’s well lying outside the development. Indeed, speaking before the Town Board, the Planning Board’s Chair suggested that a more tightly-packed four-lot subdivision already built at Van Dorn and Enfield Center Roads impacts its own water table much more.
“At this point, I have no documentation that this is going to be a major issue,” Walker told the Town Board concerning water supplies and pushing back on the need for an EIS. “Based on my experience with shale aquifers, (it’s that) they are low producing aquifers, but they generally stay pretty consistent unless you have huge demand on them.”
“The size of the lots provides enough area to protect other wells,” Walker reasoned. And if the dangers of well depletion were greater, Walker told the Town Board, “We’d have to do an EIS and a hydrological study for every two-lot subdivision” that the Codes Inspector, Alan Teeter, approved.
Walker readily admitted during Town Board questioning that Breezy Meadows’ siting puts it in a place where, as Russ Carpenter testified, well water conditions leave much to be desired.
“There’s no question that water supply in the Town is variable,” Walker said. “But with the low density of this development, the average of 10-15-acre lots, there’s enough separation that it shouldn’t be impacting adjoining neighbors.”
A state-prepared well survey—one that only lists newer wells drilled since about 2000, and relied on by the Board Chair to support his assessment—lists most wells near the proposed development in the 150-200 foot depth range, often producing water at an average two gallons per minute.
“They’re not the best producing wells,” Walker acknowledged. What’s more, he admitted, “a two gallon/minute yield can be run out if you aren’t careful with your water uses.”
A new home is going up just off the Breezy Meadows site, on Aiken Road near Halseyville. A well’s being drilled there. And Walker told the Town Board he’ll look closely at that new well’s performance once drilling is complete.
Paul Tunison knows the condition of Tucker Road. He and his wife live there. “The condition of Tucker Road is pretty bad,” Tunison told the April 5th hearing. Without a doubt, Tucker Road’s condition—now and in the future—bears heavily on Breezy Meadows’ impact. Gravel-based Tucker effectively bisects the development site, and Land & Lakes would front as many as 24 of its 33 building lots on it.
“It’s essentially a one-and-a-half lane road. It’s passable. But it can’t handle the kind of traffic for the 23-24 residences that are proposed for this subdivision,” Tunison told the hearing. Who’s going to pay for its upgrade, he asked. Tunison thinks the developer should pay.
Hayts Road sheep farmer Marguerite Wells agrees. And she brought figures—however accurate they may be — to the Planning Board’s hearing. By Wells’ calculations, at current estimates of $200,000 per mile, the paving of Tucker Road would eat up a full 19 per cent of the Enfield Highway Department’s budget in a single year. And it would take 10-15 years for the increased assessments of the newly-fronted residences on Tucker to pay back the cost.
Dan Walker and Enfield Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins take a different view. They sense no urgency for Tucker Road’s paving. Walker had talked with Rollins prior to the Planning Board’s review, and Rollins, himself, addressed the road’s condition at the Town Board’s meeting.
“(Rollins) feels Tucker Road is in pretty good condition for an unimproved gravel road,” Walker informed the Planning Board. The Superintendent “did not feel there was a need to totally rebuild the road,” Walker reported. “We have other gravel roads in the town that are in worse shape.”
Rollins told the Town Board a week later that he’s worked on Tucker Road. He reported that the ditches are good, and there are “very few potholes or wet spots.” Rollins continued, “My goal is to make all roads oil and stone roads.” And that, he said, includes Tucker. With oil and stone, the Superintendent stated, “That will handle car traffic and most delivery traffic, but not tractor-trailers and 10-wheelers every day.”
Of course, those bigger trucks could infect Tucker Road during Breezy Meadows’ construction.
“Our approval will state that this is a gravel road, and the Town has no plans to upgrade that to a paved road,” Walker told the Town Board, regarding Tucker. “The expectation should not be that that’s going to be a paved road.”
Councilperson Lynch, this writer, pushed back:
“The question is: ‘The road is never going to be improved; it’s going to remain a gravel road’ is all right until you get 24 people with houses along Tucker Road, and they come to this Town Board and say please pave that road. That’s going to happen if it gets a lot of use regardless of what the land seller tells the homeowner. They’re going to say ‘we want a better road.’”
The final spindle bracing this awkward, three-legged stool of opposition involves farmland. Land & Lakes estimates that the Kenney farm has 145 acres of agricultural land and that subdividing it would only take 29 acres away. Critics (including this writer) maintain farmable acreage would shrink to near zero. Soil quality remains subject to debate. Sheep farmer Wells chooses to think positive.
“There’s a very strong demand locally for farmland,” Wells told the Public Hearing. “There are so many farmers who would love to rent that farm.”
“We are all beneficiaries of this beautiful rural quality of life,” Wells continued. “But they could do a much more careful job of subdividing these parcels to protect the farm parcels and allow farming to continue.”
Wells presented the Planning Board a Crayola sketch of her redesign that would cluster houses on one portion of the Kenney farm and leave the rest to agriculture. Walker later critiqued Wells’ alternative.
To “densify” the property, “could actually create more water supply problems,” Walker told the Town Board.
But Wells remains undeterred. “Leave the farmland as farmland, and leave the dirt road (Tucker) as not a burden to the taxpayers of Enfield,” she pleaded.
Not all agree that Breezy Meadows’ soils are so prime or that its acreage will attract a line of bidders.
“It is not now being farmed because the farmer that was farming a lot of that land said he had problems getting a crop up every year because of the wetness conditions, and that the lease cost of the farmland was not worth it to him,” Walker informed the Town Board, the planner relying on what the developers had told him.
The Board Chair also posited that nothing would preclude a farmer from purchasing several of Breezy Meadows adjoining lots and merging them into a farmable field. Still, without a doubt, Land & Lakes’ would charge that farmer inflated prices more applicable to people than cows.
Where the Breezy Meadows’ debate leaves all of Enfield right now is with guarded uncertainty; and also with an unsettling expectation that this 33-lot subdivision will happen one way or another. Even were Enfield to be zoned, a large-lot slicing and dicing of an overpriced abandoned farm is hard to stop.
At the April 12th meeting’s start, this Councilperson advised he might introduce a Town Board motion regarding Breezy Meadows. “Does the Board believe we should provide the Planning Board some guidance on this, or should we just keep our powder dry right now?” Lynch asked later after the Town’s Board and top planner had gone back-and-forth. (A Resolution lay at the ready.)
“I’d like to hold off and see what data Dan puts forward at the next meeting,” Supervisor Stephanie Redmond responded. Thus, for the moment, the Town Board’s powder remains dry.
Breezy Meadows is an Enfield controversy not soon to fade away. And it won’t fade away after the Planning Board’s next meeting… or the meeting after that. But the May third session could prove pivotal. We’ll all see what happens then.
TC Leg: “Let the Producers Pay”
by Robert Lynch, April 18, 2023; additional reporting April 19, 2023
For the fourth time in as many meetings, the Tompkins County Legislature took the occasion Tuesday to tell Albany lawmakers what to do. Only this time, it was different. The vote was unanimous, rather that splitting predictably down partisan lines.
Without a single dissent, local legislators urged the State Senate and Assembly to enact, and Governor Hochul to sign, a measure that would force the manufacturers of packaging—particularly plastic—to bear up to half the cost borne by the municipalities that recycle them.
Tuesday’s vote came at an otherwise relatively routine legislative session whose otherwise most noteworthy take-away was the appointment of an Ontario County administrator, Lorrie Scarrott, as Tompkins County’s new Director of Finance.
“Our recycling costs have skyrocketed,” Barbara Eckstrom, Tompkins County’s recently-retired Director of Recycling and Materials Management, told the County Legislature. “It is not fair for the burden of the cost of recycling that’s mandated in this state to be borne by government and not those that produce the packaging.”
The County Legislature Tuesday coupled its endorsement of New York’s proposed “Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act” with similar support for an enhanced New York “Bottle Bill,” a revision that would double the cost of a soda or beer bottle’s deposit from a nickel to a dime and expand the deposit mandate’s reach to cover a wider range of containers, including liquor bottles.
“Five cents means nothing,” Eckstrom told the Legislature. “Ten cents is very common in states around the country.”
In recent meetings, the County Legislature has placed its endorsement behind pending, liberal-leaning bills in Albany this legislative term that would accelerate proposed increases in New York’s minimum wage, speed green-building mandates to prohibit as soon as next year fossil-fuel heating in new home construction, and ban the sale of menthol cigarettes. Republicans often dissented on those measures. But this time, on container legislation, they backed the local body’s Democratic majority. The difference was cast in dollars. Tougher container mandates could save taxpayer money.
“I think it is very important we push back on manufacturers to be stewards for the products they’re shipping to us,” Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown told Tuesday’s meeting. “Plastic is used because it’s light and it’s a lot less weight, low volume, spread out, very easy to collect and manage,” Brown added.
Brown said manufacturers, as opposed to municipal recyclers, hold the technological advantage in reducing landfill waste. “They have the systems… the ability to make packaging recyclable, and we need to push back on them,” Brown stated.
A second Republican, Groton’s Lee Shurtleff, asked Eckstrom how much the proposed packaging law might save this county’s government. The retired recycling chief didn’t have a ready answer, but made an educated guess.
“I think we are talking in the millions in terms of savings,” Eckstrom surmised. “Maybe one to 1.5 Million.”
“The recycling market has plummeted,” Eckstrom reported. She predicted the slumping market for once-valuable castoffs could make for her former department a “$300,000 to $500,000 shortfall this year.
“We luckily have an annual fee,” Eckstrom acknowledged, referring for the uniform fee homeowners pay annually—this year $80—tacked onto their tax bill. But if the market for recyclables continues to tank, and deficits mount, she warned, “It’s going to go up; you know, up, up, up; if things go on further with all of this”
“You know my hesitancy on advising the Legislature and the Governor on legislation,” Shurtleff said. “But this clearly has an impact upon the local taxpayers.”
“The time is overripe here,” Eckstrom observed, admitting the packaging mandate’s been proposed before, only to meet stiff headwinds from a New York Governor, one who’s no longer in office.
“Cuomo was not—it wasn’t something that was ever going to happen,” Eckstrom told Tuesday’s meeting, hoping that with Hochul now in the Governor’s Mansion, prospects for the packaging bill’s adoption look brighter.
“I can imagine this week’s Ithaca Times is going to be, ‘Barb Eckstrom versus the Governor on the other side,’ the Chair laughingly said, referring to the weekly’s previous report on Tompkins County’s ongoing battle with the Executive Branch regarding Medicaid reimbursements.
“I wouldn’t be able to say that unless I’d retired,” Eckstrom replied with a chuckle.
And as for the need to double the bottle deposit, Dryden’s Mike Lane drew his own comparison, remembering that long ago, when he was a kid, quart soda bottles carried a nickel deposit, same as today. “And with a nickel,” Lane remembered, “you could buy a standard Milky Way or Snickers bar.”
“I’d like to thank each and every one of you for placing your faith and trust in me in this role,” Lorrie Scarrott said following the County Legislature’s unanimous appointment of her as County Government’s new Director of Finance. Scarrott, who public records indicate currently serves as the Deputy Director of Finance for Ontario County in Canandaigua, fills the post left vacant since late last November with the retirement of former Finance Director Rick Snyder. Scarrott will begin work locally May first.
“I’ve been watching Tompkins County as an organization from afar for quite a few years,” Scarrott said at the podium following her appointment. “I have always wanted to come here and work, so this is kind of like a dream come true for me… I’m very excited.”
The new appointee told lawmakers she brings to her new job over 22 years of governmental finance experience, skills gained, she noted, in a county with a population similar to Tompkins’.
“And as we all know, some things are the same; some things are different,” Scarrott told lawmakers, acknowledging governmental comparisons and contrasts. “And so I’m sure I have a lot to share with each of you, and I’m sure each of you have a lot to share with me.”
Tompkins County evaded one big obstacle in filling Snyder’s shoes, one that’s frustrated its leaders during several recent executive searches—namely the high cost of local housing. Tompkins legislators, in appointing Scarrott, waived the local residency requirement, thereby making it eligible for the appointee to commute from her current residence, presumably located somewhere between her old job and her new one.
Since December, Enfield’s Andrew Braman has been Snyder’s interim replacement. Presumably he’ll stay on as Scarrott’s deputy. During Tuesday’s meeting, legislators applauded Braman for his oversight of governmental finances during the past five months.
On a different matter, Tompkins lawmakers Tuesday avoided—but only for two weeks—making a tough call which may either delight or anger local arts organizations. It postponed until May 2nd voting to reallocate more than $1.4 Million in hotel room tax revenue to a variety of programs aimed at shoring up the local arts community, many of whose organizations have suffered from dwindling attendance and sagging revenues post-pandemic.
Ithaca’s Amanda Champion requested delay, which passed the Legislature just barely on an 8-6 vote. Champion referenced unspecified “amendments” she expected some would offer had the debate continued. It alluded to a backstory yet to be told.
Funding supporter Greg Mezey wanted an immediate vote, saying he needs no delay. And he revealed that the legal question yet unresolved involves whether room tax surpluses can be clawed back by County Government and put into the general fund.
“I don’t really need a legal opinion,” Lansing’s Mike Sigler said. “I don’t want to go back two years and reach back and grab that money back.” What’s more, Sigler said, money in the General Fund “just kind of gets muddled.”
At the meeting’s start, representatives of several local arts organizations took their turns supporting the room tax’s repurposing. Remarked Joey Steinhagen, Artistic Director of the youth-centered Running to Places Theater Company, “We’re struggling to keep our heads above water.”
Second Wind Bows Out… Again
“Let our no’s be no’s.” Recovery Fund Withdrawal Final
by Robert Lynch, March 30, 2023
A most confusing back-and-forth funding saga ended this Tuesday. And it ended with Newfield’s Second Wind Cottages firmly—and finally—withdrawing its application for $510,000 in Tompkins County Community Recovery Funds, money it had earlier requested to expand its tiny-house encampment for the homeless, the agency bowing to community opposition.
By dropping out of the Recovery Fund sweepstakes permanently, Second Wind leaves more than a half-Million Dollars a legislative committee had earlier set aside for its benefit free to be assigned to other funding applicants. Those others include, potentially, the Enfield Community Council and a pair of Enfield-sponsored governmental projects. County legislator Randy Brown has said he’ll promote the Enfield applications at a key meeting of the Recovery Fund Advisory Committee April third.
“Until we can grow together with our neighbors in Newfield, we have decided to withdraw our application and postpone any plans to expand our cottage community in Newfield,” Second Wind posted in a four-paragraph statement on its Facebook page Tuesday.
Second Wind had attempted to withdraw its revised plan to construct 12 new self-contained “cottages” one week earlier. But after the agency’s Executive Director, David Shapiro, announced the agency’s surprising reversal of plans March 21st, County legislator Anne Koreman declined to pull from the evening’s agenda a resolution to advance Second Wind’s project toward its award, and the Legislature subsequently approved Koreman’s measure, eight votes to six.
As the Legislature deliberated the Koreman resolution—which kept the project’s funding prospects alive, but propelled it to an environmental review carrying an uncertain outcome—Shapiro responded that he’d later return to Second Wind’s Board of Directors and let them decide whether to reverse the withdrawal plans he’d carried to County lawmakers that night at the Board’s request. Tuesday’s announcement confirmed that the agency’s earlier-announced pullout stands firm.
Upbeat, yet sober, and holding out hope for the future, Second Wind’s statement Tuesday also carried a bit of a sting. It acknowledged the neighborhood opposition to expansion of the current 18-unit encampment encircling Carmen Guidi’s Route 13 body shop, and that the opposition had killed its plans. That opposition had prompted the Newfield Town Board last month to enact a one-year moratorium on new “campgrounds” in the Town, an action taken in response to Second Wind’s initial proposal that would, instead, have built as many as 20 campsite-type shelters with the Recovery Fund subsidy.
“Unfortunately, the stigma associated with homelessness and addiction still resonates throughout our communities,” Second Wind’s statement complained, citing community resistance as grounds for reversing course in its pursuit of the Recovery Fund award.
“Coming to this decision was difficult, but also is value driven,” the agency’s statement continued. “Our organization and program model places significant value on being good neighbors and friends to people of all walks of life. Right now, some of our neighbors walking near us aren’t walking with us so we will lean on the proverb “let our yes’s be yes’s and our no’s be no’s” and let the voices that continue speaking ill will about our guys represent themselves independently without our voices contributing to the negativity.”
While Second Wind now stands permanently out of the running for a slice of the $6.5 Million County-administered Community Recovery Fund, the future expansion of the cottages in Newfield remains a possibility.
Director Shapiro made an unplanned zoom visit to a routine work session of the Newfield Town Board two days after Second Wind’s prospects flip-flopped before the County Legislature.
“We can do this together,” Shapiro told the Town Board March 23rd, in words carrying a message of conciliation and cooperation regarding the encampment’s future growth.
“It’s a beautiful site,” Shapiro said of Guidi’s property, where the present 18 cottages are scattered about. “I wouldn’t want to do anything to taint that for you guys,” he said, referring to Newfield’s leaders and its residents.
And referring to the Second Wind Board of Directors, which apparently at the time of Thursday’s meeting had not yet met, Shapiro added, “They didn’t want to fight with anybody.”
Though additional tiny houses will not likely sprout in Guidi’s field this year, they might do so later. After he spoke on the zoom screen Thursday, Shapiro left an enigmatic message in the meeting’s chat box.
“12 more in 2024. Or 6 in 2024 in 2024 and a slower build,” Shapiro’s chat message stated. It could be interpreted as a starting point for a compromise construction plan to be negotiated with the Town in the future.
“Things don’t always come at the right times,” Newfield Supervisor Michael Allinger said in the meeting following Shapiro’s remarks that evening. Allinger spoke little else of Second Wind that night. Other Newfield Town Board members also kept comments brief.
“It’s now in Second Wind’s court,” Councilperson Christine Laughlin observed.
Councilperson Heather McCarty suggested a future community meeting at the Town Hall to bring Second Wind’s officials together with Newfield residents.
In early-February, the Newfield Town Board held a Public Hearing concerning the campground moratorium that it enacted later that night. But although a few dozen Newfield residents attended that hearing, not a single Second Wind representative was in the room.
The Second Wind withdrawal leaves other Community Recovery Fund applicants—including the Town of Enfield and three of its non-profit agencies—with an opportunity. Yet it’s an opportunity skating on thin ice. When the Recovery Fund’s Advisory Committee in December pared down a list of 212 applicants to about 55 to which it assigned funding, and also trimmed a total monetary ask of $32 Million to match the resources available, that committee left the ECC’s $206,000 request only about five applicants under the cutoff line.
As a result, one could assume the Community Council’s proposal, that would append a mental health services wing onto its community center, could fare well when the Advisory Committee next meets April third to recommend reapportionment of the dollars once earmarked for Second Wind.
Also-run applicants likewise bubbling-under the committee’s earlier-set funding line include the Khuba International minority farming cooperative initiative and a request by Unity House to cover operational expenses in serving those with developmental disabilities. Khuba and Unity House each asked the County for more than $1 Million. But each would accept far less.
Newfield-Enfield legislator Randy Brown has told Enfield officials he’ll push hard for funding Enfield-based applicants with any moneys Second Wind’s departure frees up. Brown has repeatedly complained that the Town of Enfield and its agencies were denied even one dime of Community Recovery funds when downtown lawmakers parceled them out last December,
In addition to the Community Council request, Brown has also highlighted an earlier-denied application by Enfield Town Government to fund replacement communications radios for the Highway Department, as well as a $97,000 catch-all “Revitalization of Municipal Buildings” package that would include, in part, replacing the roof over the Enfield Town Clerk’s office.
“I want to be very clear that if (Second Wind’s withdrawal) is what happens, and there’s $510,000, it’s not going to automatically go to Enfield and Newfield,” the Town of Ithaca’s Amanda Champion famously cautioned the County Legislature March 21, as it pondered how it might best redirect Second Wind’s subsidy should the agency exit the funding sweepstakes, as it now has done.
Next Monday’s Advisory Committee meeting could prove pivotal. Its Chair Dan Klein—who has attempted repeatedly to confine control of the funding process in a way that some say grants too much power to too few people—foresees Monday’s task as recommending reallocation to previously-unsuccessful applicants, but inviting no one else to sneak in.
“We are not seeking new applications at this time,” Klein told The Ithaca Voice Tuesday. And once again, Klein discouraged applicant buttonholing of legislators.
“Before the awards were made in December, we had requested of applicants to not lobby the Legislature,” Klein told The Voice. (Yet they did.) “Personally, I still feel that way, and I hope the applicants allow the Legislature to do its work without trying to influence our decisions with lobbying.”
Of course, that December process left the Town of Enfield, and its Community Council, Food Pantry, and Fire Company with absolutely nothing to show for their efforts.
“We sure know our community would benefit from more tiny home communities and affordable permanent supportive housing for homeless men, women and/or families,” Tuesday’s Second Wind statement concluded, as the agency acknowledged its latest setback, yet looked forward to, as it stated, “new opportunities to expand,” and in a way that “our neighbors see us for how we all hope to be seen – worthy of love and belonging.”
“Peace to all of you and praying for safety for all those living unhoused and unsafe” the organization’s statement concluded.
Second Wind’s efforts continue. So, too, do Enfield’s
When $15 is No Longer Enough
Tompkins Lawmakers Back Higher-than-Hochul Living Wage
by Robert Lynch, March 25, 2023
Liberal activists from Bernie Sanders on down not that long ago touted $15 an hour as the goal to reach. But based on comments and action this week at the Tompkins County Legislature, a $15 hourly wage is simply Old Thinking, tossed into the dustbin sometime during the last decade. Maybe eight per cent inflation killed it. Or much more likely, the goal of 15 fell victim to aspirational vision-creep; you know, once you climb the first mountain, why not simply scale the next?
Regardless of the reason, placard-holding progressives at last Tuesday’s Legislature meeting sprinted past $15 an hour, and then past 20. Now the goal is $21.25, a “Living Wage,” they say. And when do they want it? Of course, they want it NOW!
“I am tired of working 60 hour weeks and carrying a second job just to survive,” Ken Sabone, an Ithaca City School District custodian, exasperation in his weary voice, told the Legislature Tuesday. Ken, who said he earns $17.39 an hour, was among nearly a dozen who spoke to the issue that night, all but two of them endorsing New York’s “Raise the Wage Act,” a bill backed by progressive New York legislators. It would propel New York’s current minimum wage beyond its current $14.20 per hour level upstate and even beyond what Governor Kathy Hochul proposes in her this year’s Executive Budget.
“I cannot live in Ithaca as much as I would love to be part of the community,” Sabone continued. “I would love my boys to go to this (Ithaca) school district. I cannot afford it. I have to live in McLean, in a trailer park, and it costs me $1,100 a month to keep that trailer, and it’s killing me.”
Ignore for the moment that this school janitor, who no doubt enjoys full government benefits, already earns more than the $16.61 per hour that a local credit union last year set as a “Living Wage” in Tompkins County. He’d just rather not slum-it in Tompkins County’s rural reaches, but rather, maybe, live in Fall Creek, where real estate bidding wars have pushed prices for century-old homes to over a half-Million.
Those in the visitors’ gallery applauded Ken that night. And so, too—with their votes—did a majority on the County Legislature. By a margin of 8-6, with all support coming from Democrats, the locals we elect endorsed the Raise the Wage Act, a vote that carries absolutely no impact beyond its power of persuasion. It states a preference—and maybe makes certain liberals on the Legislature feel good about themselves in the process.
This week’s was the second meeting in a row where the Tompkins County Legislature expended its time and effort attempting to do Albany’s bidding. Two weeks earlier, it endorsed a bill that would ban an oil furnace or a gas range from any new home built as soon as next January.
Governor Hochul’s alternative wage bill, advanced in her executive budget, would index New York’s minimum wage to inflation. (The minimum wage is already $15 an hour in New York City.) By contrast, the bill proposed by Jessica Ramos in the State Senate and Latoya Joyner in the Assembly, would set solid numbers. It would hike the minimum wage upstate to $16 next year, $18 the year after, and $20.00 in 2026, with inflationary indexing thereafter.
Note that the bill’s text does not explicitly call for a $21.25 upstate wage. County legislator Veronica Pillar told Tuesday’s meeting that sponsors expect the upstate minimum to reach $21.25 by 2027. (The Ramos/Joyner bill would set the 2026 New York City wage at $21.25. Perhaps the placards were printed in Brooklyn.)
“Workers should not be living in poverty, especially in a country of plenty,” Pete Myers, Director of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, told the Legislature. Myers claimed upstate minimum wages have risen 55 per cent since 2016. “I’m not sure the sky has fallen in terms of business interests,” Myers opined.
Two notable Ithaca politicians addressed the issue as well. Former Republican mayoral candidate Zach Winn provided the public’s only significant pushback.
The increase, Winn asserted, “will disproportionately affect small business, exacerbate already out of control inflation,” and “create an even more hostile environment for businesses seeking employees.” Winn predicted that catapulting wages would accelerate automation and even lead to foreigners from South America taking your restaurant order in cyberspace.
First Ward Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock, locked in a tight reelection battle against a progressive opponent, supported the County Legislature’s endorsement for its symbolic impact. “It sends a strong message to your community that you understand what our community is going through,” Brock said.
Brock claimed that four-in-ten Tompkins County workers earn less than a living wage. That figure, she said, rises to 50 per cent among Latinos and 75 per cent for Blacks.
“There is a disproportionate impact of this disparity on our communities of color,” Brock said. The bill’s $16 next year’s wage is still less than a Living Wage, she observed. As a result, “We’re still going to be behind the 8-ball. We’ll still be coming back asking you for more support for our workers.”
“We are doing business in a global economy,” the evening’s other skeptical voice, Jennifer Tavares, President of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, warned legislators. She called the much-lower federal $7.25 minimum wage “a huge enemy to any state that is trying to do better by increasing wages.”
Tavares argued that lower wages in neighboring states, those in which local firms may operate or where competitors exist, create “a very different economic situation, whether we like it or not.”
Armed with a local business survey, the Chamber president reported that 63 per cent of respondents said the higher minimum wages would “impact them.” 42 of the 73 predicted they’d cut jobs or downsize through attrition. A third would raise prices. Ten employers warned they might close.
Once the public had its say, the legislators weighed in. And they took the better part of an hour of talk-time before reaching a vote.
“I think we have an affordability issue in our community,” Dryden’s Greg Mezey said, Mezey one of only three Democrats to oppose the wage resolution. To him reigning in the cost of living locally—and also throughout New York State—matters just as much as does the minimum wage. Mezey mentioned specifically the rising costs of food and child care.
“What can we do to make it more affordable?” Mezey questioned. “I don’t know if raising the wage is the way to do that. I think there are other levers that we can look at within our purview.”
“This is a significant amount of money,” Republican Mike Sigler argued, Sigler predicting that if entry-level rages rise, everyone else on the payroll will demand a raise too. It’s called “wage compression.” And for Tompkins County government alone, Sigler said, a $4.64 hourly wage increase for everyone would translate into a budget bite of $7.2 Million, all of it borne by the taxpayers. “This is a kind of state mandate upon our budget,” Sigler said.
“We have one of the highest minimum wages in the world,” Sigler said of New York’s current $14.20 upstate rate. He claimed that only Australia’s minimum wage stands slightly higher. And many other places, he noted, set different minimums based on age and skill level.
“I like going to the local ice cream stand,” Sigler commented. He claimed his daughter works at one. “I don’t know whether the ice cream stand could absorb that kind of cost,” an hourly wage of $20 or more.
Or for that matter, the farmer.
Groton’s Lee Shurtleff said he doesn’t have a Wegmans or a Walmart in his district. Groton’s industry has left. Only farmers and small businesses remain.
“Most of the owners of these small town small businesses and agricultural operations many months of the year aren’t essentially realizing a livable wage themselves when they get done making payroll, paying their property taxes, paying the heat bills, trying to keep things afloat,” Shurtleff asserted.
And without mentioning the Groton Health Care Facility directly, Shurtleff cautioned that the bill’s wage increases, without higher offsetting federal and state reimbursements, could “put it out of business.”
An unresolved mystery during the evening’s debate concerned how state legislative sponsors of the $21.25 minimum wage actually arrived at that number, a wage some 28 per cent above the supposed Living Wage that locals calculate. Supporters had no ready answer, other than to say that living costs might rise roughly in tandem with the pay raises proposed.
“I’d sure like to understand it better before I vote for it,” Ithaca’s Rich John said. John joined Mezey and Dryden’s Mike Lane as the only Democrats to oppose Tuesday’s action.
“I think it’s the wrong time to do this,” Lane said. “We’re in a time of economic uncertainty. He rattled off all sorts of business setbacks; like inflation, bank failures, a doubling of nursing home costs, and Borg Warner’s recent decision to send 1,500 of its Lansing plant’s manufacturing jobs to Mexico.
But Legislature Chair Shawna Black closed the debate by turning Lane’s argument on its head, Black countering that if now’s not the right time to raise wages, then when is? During the pandemic, she argued, the poor got poorer, and maybe the rich got richer too.
And then, the local Legislature’s Chair unloaded on Governor Hochul and the state Executive’s more modest wage increase her Executive Budget proposes.
“I personally have found the Governor’s Budget laughable and insulting,” Black said. “I think that this effort demonstrates really her lack of connection with the people.”
But last Tuesday’s debate also demonstrates the governmental, political, and philosophical divide between all of us, the wide gulf that puts Shawna Black and Ken the custodian on one side, and business interests, Mike Sigler, and maybe also Governor Hochul on the other. Is the payroll pot a bottomless jar to be spooned with abandon? Or does dipping out too much from the top then empty it all too quickly and leave resources too few to replenish it? When Ken the custodian benefits, do farmers suffer and fail? And when well-intentioned, approval-seeking legislative Democrats overreach, does the (once great) Empire State shed jobs to other places, with Living Wages guaranteed to the fortunate few who benefit, but with unemployment assured for the remaining rest?
On the date of this writing, the last weekend of March, with action on a state budget due—though not expected—within seven days, the Raise the Wage Act sits in each House’s respective committees. Both our local legislators, Assemblymember Anna Kelles and State Senator Lea Webb, stand as the bill’s proud co-sponsors. Should you hold your own opinion based on what you’ve read, please weigh in. Depending on the bill’s fate, you may win… or lose.
Take the Money… Please!
Second Wind Funding takes maddening, muddling twists
By Robert Lynch, March 22, 2023
At 9:00, the pizzas arrived. Hungry, debate-weary lawmakers devoured them. But the nourishment did little to make sense of a most confusing, marathon meeting, a session in which those at the mic often chose simply to talk past one another.
In a surprise announcement to the Tompkins County Legislature, one that seemed more certain when light still lit the sky than it did five hours later when the meeting finally adjourned, Second Wind Cottages Tuesday withdrew its recently-revised request for Tompkins County Community Recovery Funds, moneys it would have used to expand its controversial homeless encampment in Newfield.
But a majority of legislators refused to take “no thanks” for an answer. Following extended debate, and after first tossing out legislator Randy Brown’s initiative to defund the project altogether, a split Tompkins County Legislature adopted member Anne Koreman’s competing measure that accepted Second Wind’s amended plans and advanced the project to environmental review.
The pair of conflicting actions left Second Wind in a confusing muddle. Second Wind Executive Director David Shapiro advised the Legislature late in its deliberations that he’d return to his Board of Directors and let them decide whether to rescind their earlier-directed withdrawal.
Nonetheless, two sources close to the controversy each indicate that most likely the organization will hold firm to its intentions and drop the project’s $510,000 request in the interests of instilling harmony with Newfield.
“Relationships matter,” Shapiro told lawmakers as he availed himself of brief floor privileges at the meeting’s start, remarks that concluded with his stunning announcement of the application’s withdrawal.
“Our whole programmatic philosophy is how to be good neighbors,” Shapiro explained. “And I know the Town of Newfield’s position that they don’t support us right now in expanding. And that hurts.”
“But what that tells me,” Shapiro continued, “is that we have some relationship building to do.”
“So we’re going to have to withdraw our application,” the agency’s Director concluded. “And I just want to thank you for considering us.”
Normally, that would be that. Second Wind’s half-million dollar request would drop out, leaving other applicants—most notably the Town of Enfield and its Community Council, rejected in an earlier funding round—an opportunity to tap Community Recovery moneys now up for grabs But not Tuesday. Not for Ulysses-Enfield legislator Anne Koreman, nor for the Democrat-dominated majority behind her. They pressed ahead for Second Wind’s support. And they prevailed.
“I’m not going to take it out,” Koreman insisted, referring to her Resolution to accept Second Wind’s proposed application revisions, even though they suddenly seemed irrelevant in light of Shapiro’s announcement.
Koreman reasoned that Second Wind pulled its application only because it had feared a legislative defeat. “I’m hoping it will pass,” Koreman said. “So I would like to keep my Resolution in.”
And it did pass… just barely. With seven Democrats joining Koreman and all three Republicans in opposition, the Ulysses Democrat’s measure to accept Second Wind’s revised application passed eight votes to six. Legislator Brown’s competing Resolution to defund Second Wind lost five votes to nine. All Republicans supported Brown’s position.
Koreman’s adopted measure overruled an early-March recommendation of the Legislature’s Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee. The committee would have denied Second Wind’s request to substitute the construction of an additional 12 tiny “cottages” to house homeless men at the Newfield site, building them to replace the 25 “campsite:” shelters first proposed. Second Wind’s plans changed after the Town of Newfield in February imposed a one-year moratorium on new campgrounds in the Town, a move directly targeting the Second Wind initiative and a step that effectively made the agency’s first plans unbuildable during the time frame the Recovery Fund allowed.
But passage of Koreman’s Resolution in no way assures the dozen cottages’ construction, even should the agency’s Board reverse course. The project still needs environmental approval. The Town of Newfield will likely oversee the report’s writing. And Newfield’s review will likely be brutal, given the lopsided opposition expressed by Second Wind’s neighbors.
Three and a half-hours into Tuesday’s meeting and better than an hour into the Second Wind debate, Dryden’s Mike Lane had had enough.
“How long are we going to go on tonight, folks?” Lane interrupted. “You have three-quarters of the agenda that we haven’t even gotten to.” Fortunately for Lane, the final vote on Koreman’s Resolution came four minutes later, after members first rejected another lawmaker’s effort to toss the Koreman resolution back to committee.
The Second Wind discussion felt longer-winded than it actually was. That was due largely to a second item that legislators tackled Tuesday. It addressed state-proposed Living Wage laws, an issue that packed the visitors’ gallery and drew the number of public comments to more than two dozen. (See separate story soon to be posted.) Because of the meeting’s near record-setting length, the Legislature took the unusual step of throwing some agenda items overboard, including the County Administrator’s otherwise-newsworthy update on the potential building of a downtown Center of Government.
But where, exactly, does Second Wind’s withdrawn application now stand? In the heat of Tuesday’s debate, Budget Chair Deborah Dawson sought an answer.
“Is there an application or is there not an application?” Dawson asked Second Wind’s Shapiro. “Because if there is not an application, we are wasting our time.”
Still sitting in the gallery, Shapiro answered as definitively as he could.
“I was asked to come here and deliver a message that we don’t want to be in a posture where we’re defending ourselves and the work we do with our guys where we’re further stigmatizing the guys that live with us,” Shapiro answered. “And we don’t want to have animosity with the Town,” he continued, the Director signaling that for those reasons his governing Board had asked him to withdraw the application.
But then, Shapiro continued. “What I’m hearing tonight would make me want to go back and talk to them (the Board). I can’t tell you what they’re going to say, ‘cause they told me to come to withdraw the application, and that’s what I came here to do today.”
“I believe David and I are on the same page,” Newfield Supervisor Michael Allinger later stated, Newfield’s chief executive welcoming further dialogue with Second Wind, yet mystified by the County’s continued insistence on Community Recovery funding.
“I am amazed that the Legislature is pushing forward with this when this is something that David has stated that they don’t want to have happen to them,” Allinger told lawmakers. “Newfield certainly doesn’t want the animosity of the Legislature or ill will toward Second Wind,” the Supervisor continued. “They are a part of our community. They’ve been a part of our community for 13 years. And I expect they’ll continue to be a part of our community, and hopefully a more integrated part of the community, and one that the people who live in our community will come to understand and have time to make their own decisions about how to move forward with this. I don’t know how I can put it any other way.”
Newfield’s continued objection to Second Wind’s expansion took fire Tuesday on a couple of fronts. Ithaca legislator Travis Brooks compared the town’s stance to the redlining that he, a Black man, experienced in his youth. But it was Dryden’s Greg Mezey who leveled the strongest criticism.
“This is a painful conversation,” Mezey said, responding when Brown suggested that should Second Wind’s cottage expansion replace its campground concept, Newfield might just enact another moratorium to block it.
“People live there. These are people’s homes,” Mezey said of Second Wind’s present and future residents. “We’re trying to create more homes for more people.” Yet those residents, he asserted, “are being sort of talked about and traded around like a commodity in conversation.” Mezey labeled Newfield’s campground moratorium a “targeted, malicious approach.”
“That’s painful for me to listen to,” the Dryden legislator stated, “because that says that our local government, who is supposed to be there for the people, by the people, is taking a targeted approach to kick something out of their community, to make sure people don’t have homes. Like, find a way.”
“Right now, right here, this is our chance to do something,” Mezey concluded. And if the Legislature votes Second Wind down, “then we should just take the unhoused conversation off the table because we really are just failing to do anything at all.”
Caution found support from some corners at Tuesday’s meeting, and not just from hometown legislator Brown and his Republican colleagues.
“I heard Dave Shapiro loud and clear,” Legislature Chair Shawna Black said as she attempted to steer debate toward acceptance of Second Wind’s reluctance. “It sounds like they don’t want to pursue this, and I want to be respectful of that.”
Those comments aside, Black still voted in favor of Koreman’s supportive motion and against Brown’s efforts to defund.
Budget Chair Dawson took the strongest stand in Newfield’s defense.
“If Second Wind and the Town of Newfield came up with a proposal that they both found agreeable, I wouldn’t have any problem with that,” Dawson said. “But I firmly believe that Newfield, like any other municipality, has a right to make a decision about what it wants within its community.”
“And I don’t feel we as a county should violate the comity we owe a constituent municipality by forcing something on them that they don’t want,” the Lansing Democrat added. Dawson voted in support of Brown’s motion, and against Koreman’s.
With Second Wind’s funding standing for the moment very much in a “no man’s land,” the next chapter, if not written by Second Wind’s own Board of Directors, may play out at the Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee’s next meeting April third.
“If we hear from Second Wind that they are continuing to withdraw their application, then the topic for that day will be reallocation of that money,” Advisory committee chair Dan Klein told a meeting whose members found themselves all too weary to consider the Recovery Fund for even one more minute. But if Second Wind changes its mind, Klein surmised, “we probably don’t have a meeting.” as there’d be nothing to discuss April third.
And if Second Wind does, indeed, bow out, Randy Brown is prepared to pounce. Brown has identified the $206,000 application by the Enfield Community Council and a pair of lower-priced Town of Enfield funding requests as prime candidates to soak up some of the $510,000 in Recovery Funds that Second Wind would likely shed. But his efforts may not prove a slam-dunk.
“I want to be very clear that if that is what happens, and there’s $510,000, it’s not going to automatically go to Enfield and Newfield,” the Town of Ithaca’s Amanda Champion cautioned. “It’s going to go to the best applications.”
Champion pointed to the comment of one speaker, namely this Enfield Councilperson, who’d earlier promoted those two towns’ eligibility, given that Enfield had been shut out the first time around. Oh, to be sure, in some circles, the funding battle stands far from finished.
Enfield may Gain from Second Wind’s Stumble
by Robert Lynch, March 10, 2023
It’s early. And to make it work, all the moving parts would have to move just right. But a vote this week by a legislative oversight committee could free up Tompkins County Community Recovery Funds for some of the Enfield projects frozen out of downtown-administered moneys last December, including a mental health wing sought by the Enfield Community Council.
“I’ll be fighting for Enfield,” County legislator Randy Brown told the Enfield Town Board Wednesday night. Brown’s remark came two days after the Tompkins County Legislature’s Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee rejected, two-votes-to-four, the application by Newfield-based Second Wind Cottages to substitute a dozen more tiny houses— so-called “cottages” for the homeless— to replace the 25 campsite-type shelters Second Wind had earlier proposed for Community Recovery funding.
A one-year moratorium on new “campgrounds” enacted in early-February by the Newfield Town Board, in response to local opposition to Second Wind’s proposed additions, has effectively nixed the campsite idea. By the time the moratorium would eventually lapse, the Recovery Fund moneys would likely have dried up.
“Functionally, it’s dead,” County legislator Deborah Dawson predicted Monday just before the Advisory Committee voted down Second Wind’s proposed swap of one building proposal for the other. Dawson opposed the Second Wind revision, as did Newfield’s Brown and two others. Only Committee Chair Dan Klein and Ithaca legislator Veronica Pillar would have permitted the homeless advocacy group to apply its earlier-recommended $510,000 for the 12 new cottages instead.
After Monday’s meeting, and again to Enfield’s Board Wednesday night, Brown promised he’ll ask the full County Legislature, at its next meeting March 21st, to remove Second Wind’s pricey proposal completely from the list of eligible projects set to earn a slice of the county’s $6.5 Million Recovery Fund.
And if Second Wind drops out, Enfield projects could then drop in.
“I will make my priority Enfield applications,” legislator Brown promised the Enfield Town Board in his pre-meeting written narrative Wednesday.
The most likely candidate to snag leftover funding—since it barely missed the Advisory Committee’s funding cut last December—is the Enfield Community Council, with its $206,000 request to replace a dilapidated mobile add-on at its recently-purchased Community Center with a stick-built, multi-purpose wing designed, in part, to provide offices in Enfield for first-ever mental house counseling.
Also mentioned by Brown as potential candidates are three projects advanced by the Town of Enfield itself.
In its applications filed with the County’s consultant last October, yet never recommended for funding by the committee, the Town sought $26,591 to purchase communications radios for the Enfield Highway Department, and also $97,040 for a “Main Street Revitalization of Municipal Buildings” fix-up package, the latter application to include replacement of the Enfield Town Hall’s roof.
The Town sought an additional $225,000 to build an unheated storage building for Highway Department equipment. But this “cold storage building” is now perhaps the longest of long shots.
Seizing the moment, the four attending members of the Enfield Town Board unanimously adopted a Resolution Wednesday supporting Brown’s efforts to advance the ECC, the portable radios, and the roof replacement measures both in the Advisory Committee and then before the full County Legislature.
Earlier-proposed—and committee-rejected—Enfield projects not mentioned by Brown for revived consideration in light of Second Wind’s rejection included the $1.2-1.6 Million Enfield Food Distribution application to build a new Food Pantry, and a lesser-priced request by the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company to be used, in part, to construct a bunk room.
Observers acknowledge that approval of legislator Brown’s late-day wish-list is far from a done deal. First, the full Legislature later this month would need to drop Second Wind’s $510,000 allocation from its tentatively-approved funding roster. Only then could Brown ask the Advisory Committee in early April to move the Enfield requests into contention. Committee endorsement would later require the full Legislature’s endorsement. And scores of other non-profit agencies and governmental groups—shut-out, as Enfield was, in last fall’s money-quest—stand equally eager to snatch the money that would be made available should Second Wind falter.
Newfield Councilperson Heather McCarty, perhaps her Town Board’s most progressive Democrat, sounded a whole lot like Republican legislator Brown Monday when she co-opted the talking point that Brown had spoken on the County Legislature’s floor in January. McCarty maintained that the views of her neighbors too often get overlooked by Ithaca-centric lawmakers who may have all the best intentions, but yet a tin ear for listening.
“There’s a perception in the Town of Newfield,” McCarty said, “that while the County Government and county residents have a lot of concern for many people who deserve help, that the rural residents of the county are considered second-class citizens, and that their opinion and needs do not matter.”
McCarty added, “I’m here today to request that the committee and the County Legislature extend their consideration and compassion that they laudably have for certain segments of the population, to the Town of Newfield as a whole.”
McCarty, like Town Supervisor Michael Allinger and Councilperson Joanne James—together a full three-fifths of the Newfield Town Board—who all spoke at Monday’s meeting, stressed the lack of full-time supervision at the current 18-unit Second Wind Cottages site. They also cited problems of inadequate police and emergency medical presence and community resistance in their collective call for the Advisory Committee to turn down whatever Second Wind’s expansion might be.
Supervisor Allinger told the meeting he’s gotten “dozens of phone calls from the community speaking out unfavorably about the expansion.”
“One caller, Allinger said, “noted that she had young daughters and had concerns for the fact that there was a Level Three sex offender in residence there.”
Allinger also stated that Second Wind’s neighbors complain that the cottages’ residents strew garbage in neighbors’ yards along Route 13 and troop along the highway to a nearby convenience store where they then buy beer and patronize a “head shop.”
“We feel they’re at their capacity,” Allinger said of the homeless encampment, speaking at a meeting that Second Wind’s owners and organizers failed to attend, but to whom the Town Supervisor hoped they’d still listen.
“They need to take a step back, evaluate where they are,” Allinger said. “The mission is fine. I have no problem with reaching out to help the homeless.”
Yet Newfield’s top elected official also saw Second Wind’s effort to date as an opportunity lost.
“I don’t think that they are doing the job that they could be doing with the numbers that they have currently, and that is the feeling that I’ve heard over and over with every person I’ve talked to,” Allinger said.
And yes, numbers did factor into the Advisory Committee’s Monday decision. A spreadsheet shared by the Recovery Fund’s consultant compared how many might benefit from Second Wind’s 12 new tiny houses compared to the more transient-focused campground the applicant had first proposed.
The revised concept would house within an average year only enough homeless to fill the dozen new cottages. Campsite shelters, by comparison, could provide temporary residence for up to “100 unique individuals.”
“The impact on folks that it would serve is much less,” Ithaca legislator Travis Brooks observed. “That does create some problems for me in terms of supporting this,” Brooks said. He cast his vote to reject Second Wind’s re-do.
“It’s an awful lot of money for twelve people,” Deborah Dawson echoed. She calculated the drain on Recovery Fund money at about $50,000 a person.
“It doesn’t seem like we’d be getting an awful lot of bang for our buck,” Dawson said.
Despite the Advisory Committee’s turndown this week, the originally-recommended $510,000 Community Recovery Fund handout to Second Wind Cottages technically still remains alive. It’s just that the Newfield Campground Moratorium likely makes the project unbuildable. That’s where legislator Brown’s March 21st defunding initiative would kick in. But unless and until the full Legislature tosses the 25 camping shelters into the ashcan, the Town of Enfield and the ECC will just have to bide their time and wait their (possible) turns.
Still, the lesson learned for the moment is that hometown outrage and community advocacy makes a difference. And any attempt by Second Wind Cottages to win back Tompkins County Community Recovery Fund support would certainly become a steep, uphill climb.
“I don’t think we as a county should be funding a project, encouraging a project, that the local community is so much against,” Dawson said Monday.
She probably has her finger on the pulse. And Enfield would surely like to pick up any of the greenbacks that may litter along the Route 13 roadside should the Second Wind application meet its death later this month on the Tompkins County Legislature’s floor.
Tompkins’ Green New Divide
by Robert Lynch, March 8, 2023
When Tucker Carlson warns of Big Government barging in to confiscate your gas stove, maybe this is where it starts.
Tuesday night, on what was intended to be just another routine, rubber-stamp endorsement of a liberal green initiative in Albany, the Tompkins County Legislature split down party lines on whether state lawmakers should ban you from putting an oil furnace, a wood stove, or even a gas cooktop in any new home you build anywhere in New York as soon as next January.
“I would just like to remind the Legislature that this is a Resolution that doesn’t talk about something that we’re enacting here in Tompkins County,” Legislature Chair Shawna Black cautioned as lawmakers—and earlier, the public—took turns to weigh in on the issue and then run to their ideological battle stations. “This is one of those resolutions that we send on to representatives…. It’s important. But I don’t know if we need to go so deep in these resolutions,” Black maintained.
No matter. This was about principle; and passion… and politics. And moreover, did anyone in legislative chambers that night really believe a local recommendation would change any minds? Ithaca’s Assemblymember, Democrat Anna Kelles, is among the “All-Electric Building Act’s” key co-sponsors. Democrats stack the State Senate and Assembly. The building code’s ban on new gas stoves will likely pass, like it or not.
The Tuesday debate drew former County legislator Martha Robertson out of retirement, the Dryden Democrat clearly espousing the global warming doomsday scenarios that so many on the Left embrace without challenge, and that so many of their counterparts on the Right challenge without apology.
“This is going to be hard. Nobody said it was going to be easy, nobody said it was going to be cheap,” Robertson, known when in the Legislature for her run-on monologues, said in floor privileges remarkably kept within their allowed three minutes. But Robertson continued, “The fact is the alternative. It’s not going to be life as we know it now. The alternative is going to be harder and more expensive and disastrous for all of us.”
The retired legislator tried to envision what sort of climate her grandchildren might face when they reach her age by 2080. “That’s a terrifying idea,” Robertson warned. “What’s the world going to look like? What’s the world going to look like in ten years?”
Former Tompkins County Environmental Management Council Chair Brian Eden shared Robertson’s concern. Eden called climate change an “existential issue,” and welcomed the All-Electric Building Act as a means to an end.
“It actually is a climate emergency,” Eden insisted. “But it’s not recognized as such by most people.”
And one of those in legislative chambers who refuses to accept the climate crisis as Eden views it is Lansing Republican Mike Sigler. He, Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown, and Groton’s Lee Shurtleff, all Republicans, voted against the Legislature’s climate-conscious Resolution. They were the only ones who did.
“The problem with this whole thing is,” Sigler told legislators, “it talks about demand…. We’ll tell people we’re going to electrify houses, we’re going to electrify cars. And frankly, none of that matters.”
And, Sigler maintained, the argument doesn’t matter because electrical supply is lacking to meet the expected increased demand electrification will require.
“Right now in this state, 71 per cent of your electricity comes from fossil fuels,” Sigler said. “That means 29 per cent comes from renewables. But what they don’t tell you is that more than half of that renewable is made up by Niagara Falls. And they’re not making any more Niagara Falls.”
Sigler’s remark revived a pro-nuclear argument he’s raised at prior meetings. Tuesday it ignited a sidebar debate that Shawna Black eventually attempted to reign in. Before she did, legislator Rich John conceded that as to nuclear, “We have to be open to have that conversation.”
Dryden’s Mike Lane put his opinion crisply. “No to nuclear,” Lane said. That remark, with Sigler, touched a nerve.
“Then I would have to question if is this actually an existential crisis?” Sigler responded.
“We can take this into any single thing that was an existential crisis like World War II,” Sigler continued, “when we were willing to sacrifice people on a beachhead to get into France. So if this is an existential crisis that’s going to kill us all, and we are not willing to look at something that is tried and true and improved over the last 50 years with not a single U.S. death, and we’re not willing to look at that and the new technology that’s come over since the last half-century? Then yes, it is not an existential crisis.”
Now it was time for the Legislature’s liberals to get incensed. Ulysses Anne Koreman was one of two who quickly called to shut down the nuclear debate and bring matters to a vote. When she did, the climate Resolution passed, 11 votes to three.
“I’m against fracking completely, I think it’s a bad idea,” Newfield’s Randy Brown remarked before casting his vote on Sigler’s side. “But I also think there’s a value for natural gas.” And as for the resolution on the floor, Brown had this opinion: “I think it’s too aggressive.”
The “All-Electric Building Act,” sponsored by Manhattan’s Brian Kavanagh in the State Senate and Brooklyn’s Emily Gallagher in the Assembly, is one of those Albany bills that’s easy to ignore until it turns around and bites you. The measure would speed up implementation of green building initiatives already advanced by Governor Hochul in her State of the State Address.
Put plainly, and giving no exception for single –family residences, the legislation would direct “the state fire prevention and building code council to prohibit the installation of systems that can be used for the combustion of fossil fuels in new construction.” Governor Hochul’s timetable for the mandate would require any newly-constructed building less than seven stories tall to be all-electric by 2026, with taller structures to be the same by 2029.
The Kavanaugh/Gallagher bills that the County Legislature endorsed Tuesday would move up those dates by two years each. Should they pass, no new home could have a fossil-fueled energy source after this December.
Lost, of course, in the debate is the fact that fossil fuels still generate most of our electricity, and that the initiatives Martha Robertson and Brian Eden so fervently support carry more of an aspirational feel to them, rather than arguments based on cold, hard logic.
Tuesday’s adopted resolution also backed other pending green initiatives in Albany, including one that Lansing’s Sigler termed a “cap and trade” payment system that Sigler argued would only mean higher power bills to consumers.
“This necessarily increases the cost of electricity on every single constituent I have,” Sigler argued. “And frankly, they’re tapped out.”
To be truthful, no one’s coming after your existing gas cook stove or oil furnace… at least not quite yet. But if the measure endorsed be Tompkins lawmakers Tuesday night becomes law, don’t expect to put one of them into any new home you build next year. That’s freedom of choice, New York style.
Hearing Set; Questions Remain
Enfield’s “Breezy Meadows” to go to the People in April
by Robert Lynch, March 4, 2023
In the minds of many, it may be the Enfield development that few really want, yet nobody knows exactly how to stop. And even if the town had a razor-sharp zoning law, any effort to halt it might not fare much better.
Wednesday (March 1st), the Enfield Town Planning Board, by unanimous vote, advanced the proposed “Breezy Meadows Farm” large-lot rural subdivision to an April 5th Public Hearing. By a similarly unanimous vote, planners designated their own Board to act as the lead agency in a state-mandated environmental review of the project, sandwiched between Podunk and Halseyville Roads.
As it appeared from this observer’s vantage point in the room that night, Board members saw little alternative to doing what they did. Yet one could infer that if New York Land & Lakes Development had never come forth with its plan to carve up the former John William Kinney farm into building lots, planners would not have shed one tear. But Land & Lakes has played by the book. And to deny developers a hearing now would most likely prompt a lawsuit. That’s the dilemma.
The Planning Board’s scheduling of the April hearing Wednesday followed a laborious, more than two-hour review of Land & Lakes’ preliminary “Breezy Meadows” subdivision plan. It included a property plat more refined than that first disclosed to planners—and to potential neighbors—three months earlier. Review also included the developer’s 145-page Environmental Report.
“I don’t have a problem with the plat as it is,” Chair Dan Walker said near the close of the Planning Board’s review. “All the lots meet the minimum requirements,” Walker said, “and there’s more than enough frontage.”
Walker asked other Board members if they had any concerns about the subdivision’s configuration. None said they did.
Instead, Wednesday’s Board concerns trod a different path. Members questioned how the proposed 33-lot subdivision, taken in aggregate, would impact local roads in handling increased traffic; how new housing would affect the water table, and how anyone would enforce the deed restrictions that Land & Lakes intends to write into every sales contract it signs.
Not since perhaps the infamous Black Oak Wind Farm debate of a decade ago has a proposed Enfield development prompted more public concern than has Breezy Meadows. In early-December, residents of the town’s northwest quadrant flocked to the Planning Board’s monthly meeting after an anonymous someone stuffed Breezy Meadows’ initial site sketches into mail boxes. Some voiced critical comments to the Planning Board December 7th. However, since that year-end session, public outcry has quieted. Only three prospective neighbors attended last Wednesday’s meeting. They offered brief questions, but gave no public statements.
The Planning Board’s March agenda provided no privileges of the floor. By contrast, the April Public Hearing will be publicly advertised and noticed widely. Expect a robust public turnout then.
Standing prominently—albeit sadly—within the 337-acre Breezy Meadows tract are 13 long, low-slung poultry barns, metal structures long-abandoned, deteriorating, and a few falling in. The Environmental Report’s narrative states that the barns were built by the former Babcock Poultry farm in 1972, then leased to a swine-raising operation 12 years later. Abandoned since 1994, the barns stand either empty or filled with junk. The land around them has grown to brush.
“They’re pretty substantial buildings. I don’t see the point in tearing them down,” Land & Lakes Project Manager Alan Lord told the Planning Board Wednesday. Lord said the future opportunities for the buildings have led his firm to designate the development’s four lots facing Podunk Road for possible commercial use. Each lot would encompass three of the large barns, some of them 500 feet long.
“So if anyone wanted to develop this into commercial, they’d need site plan approval,” Board Chair Walker cautioned. A future agricultural use, however, might be exempt.
Tucker Road: Planning Board review of the Breezy Meadows subdivision began with discussion of what could become the greatest concern for Enfield taxpayers town-wide. The Board addressed how the developer’s plans to add more than 20 new building lots along Tucker Road would impact the lightly-traveled, poorly constructed dirt and gravel road that bisects the project site.
“The road is not very strong. It’s a pretty soft road,” Walker remarked. He indicated he’d discussed Tucker Road’s status with Town Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins.
“It’s a public road; it’s a legal road,” Walker conceded. “But the Highway Department says that with lots more traffic, it will need additional maintenance,” the Board Chair continued. “We have provisions in the Subdivision Regulations to demand improvements on the road.”
But do they? Nuance could become the basis for legal argument here.
When a developer plans to sell building lots fronting a newly-built road, Enfield rules require the developer pay to build the road and then deed it to the Town. But when lots front on a road that already exists, any municipality’s demands for an upgrade stand on shakier soil, and in more ways than one.
“I look at it as a Town Road,” Land & Lakes’ Alan Lord responded. “We do not have a budget” for that kind of improvement, Lord added.
Lord did not categorically rule out contributing to Tucker Road’s improvement, but neither did he commit to it. A similar upgrade of Aiken Road—used Wednesday as a benchmark comparison—cost the Town of Enfield $160,000 when undertaken in 2020, according to budget documents.
“We’re not going to instantly build houses,” Lord advised the Planning Board, the project manager signaling that Breezy Meadows’ traffic growth would be gradual, not sudden. Lord said his firm’s experience is that within the first ten years of a development, only one-quarter of the parcels get built out.
Only three homes stand alongside Tucker Road right now. Walker estimated that Tucker presently gets “4-10 vehicle trips a day in and out.” The Board Chair said he’d contact Rollins to obtain updated cost estimates for recommended improvements.
“I don’t think we need an adversarial process,” Board member Mike Carpenter remarked, suggesting negotiation with the developer should come before confrontation.
“We’ll talk offline about it,” Walker told Alan Lord, putting Tucker Road’s fate to bed for the evening.
Deed Restrictions: “This seems like a really bad way to do things,” Mike Carpenter observed as the Planning Board addressed another troublesome aspect of the Breezy Meadows plan: deed restrictions and whether there’d be any easy way to enforce them.
Project developers propose to condition sale of every lot they sell on about a dozen and a half restrictions that would, among other things, prevent the placement of single-wide manufactured homes on a lot, prohibit a purchaser from further subdividing a lot, and also—rather subjectively—require a purchaser’s outdoor lighting to be kept to a minimum and directed mainly downward. At a prior meeting, Land & Lakes had admitted that many of the proposed Enfield rules were lifted as boiler-plate from restrictions imposed at the company’s subdivision in more heavily-regulated Dryden.
“Who enforces them?” Carpenter asked of Alan Lord and his partner Bob Esperance.
“One of the other property owners could stop (a breach of the covenant),” Lord answered.
“It seems so uninformed as a plan,” Carpenter responded.
“If there’s a better way, I’m all ears,” Lord rebutted.
Much as they’d like to think they could, planners admitted the Town of Enfield holds no enforcement power. Only other subdivision purchasers—or Land & Lakes itself—would hold legal standing to enforce what amounts to a private contract, not a government regulation.
“Can the Town pass a law to enforce these covenants?” Board member Henry Hansteen asked.
“Not to just these lots,” Carpenter answered Hansteen.
“You’d be zoning just one corner of the town,” Lord explained.
The project manager couldn’t recall any of his company’s purchasers ever having to take a neighbor to court in the past 20 years for a covenant violation. Enforcement comes more likely, he said, through one-on-one discussions as well as from how a violation could cloud a title or pose problems in securing a mortgage.
Of the restrictions proposed, Lord said, “We’re just trying to remind people to be good neighbors.”
Greg Hutnik, the Planning Board’s newest member, raised another problem. New York State regards single-wide mobile homes as residences, Hutnik claimed. As a result, he said, it’s hard to screen them out.
“I’d want to keep the mobile home restrictions in these,” Managing Partner Lesperence, responded.
“It’s not legally enforceable by the Town,” Hansteen reminded the developer.
One resident asked briefly about whether 33 new homes would reduce groundwater supplies to neighboring properties.
Lord did not see a problem. He said he’d checked data the state has required well drillers to supply since the start of the millennium. “There are quite a few wells in the inventory,” Lord claimed. Many, he said, are pumping 8-10 gallons per minute. That, Lord said, is “pretty good.”
As for the future of Breezy Meadows, the early-April Public Hearing will tell us more; whether neighbors in the area will accept the presumed inevitable slicing and dicing of a once wide-open chicken and hog farm, or whether they’ll choose to stand and fight. But even if Enfield were to change course and abandon its long-held community resistance to zoning, a ready remedy may not remain easily at hand. Breezy Meadows’ proposed lots are generally three-30 acres in size. It’s hard to block a housing subdivision with that much open space and with building lots that large.
New York Land & Lakes reportedly paid $1.6 Million for the J.W. Kinney farm. And when big money meets a limited supply of land, turning open fields into building lots becomes a hard thing to stop.
Community Council Faces $20K Budget Gap
Town Board assistance requested
By Robert Lynch, February 24, 2023
“It’s not a balanced budget, and I’d like a balanced budget,” Enfield Community Council Board member Debbie Teeter told the ECC’s Board of Directors at its annual meeting Thursday. Teeter presented—and the Board then approved unanimously—a 2023 Budget containing a nearly $20,000 shortfall between projected revenues and expenses.
Teeter indicated she intends to ask the Enfield Town Board to close the funding gap with a special, one-time appropriation. She said the funds could be drawn from money given Enfield under the federal government’s American Rescue Plan. Teeter said she may have the request ready for the Town Board’s March 8 meeting, or else present it in April.
“We need some money this year, and I will probably need some money next year,” Teeter acknowledged. She later suggested ECC might request a $10,000 special appropriation in 2024.
ECC President Cortney Bailey blamed the pandemic for revenues lagging behind costs. “We’re getting there,” Bailey claimed, “but we should have been there two years ago.”
Bailey and Teeter explained that the several years of COVID-related shutdowns and social restrictions reduced projected event bookings for ECC’s recently-purchased community center, the former Living Water Church. And COVID also substantially cut the number of participants at ECC’s summer day camp, or else suspended the camp altogether.
As adopted by the agency’s Board Thursday, the ECC Budget projects this year’s expenses at $163,930, and revenues at $144,502. Projected revenues would rise by nearly 26 per cent from moneys received in 2022. Budgeted expenses would climb by only 1.5 per cent.
The ECC Board has taken an optimistic outlook for its year-ahead event bookings. Its budget projects a more than seven-fold rise in building revenues. Rental for the community center’s “Great Room,” the former church sanctuary, would rise from $700 collected in 2022 to $7,150 projected for 2023. ECC predicates the increase, in part, on its hopes to host five weddings and five “celebrations” during the current year.
While ECC’s leadership regrets the need to seek a short-term Town Board bailout, Teeter acknowledged that the recent past has proven far worse than the near future appears to look.
Largely due to depressed revenues, ECC incurred a more than $46,000 financial shortfall for the year just ended. Teeter said the Community Council had to dip into long-held financial reserves to close last year’s gap.
Under its multi-year contract with the agency, the Town of Enfield, according to the budget, will provide the ECC $52,456 during 2023. This taxpayer subsidy constitutes ECC’s largest single revenue item. Camp fees, at a projected $41,275, would provide the second-highest revenue source.
Any supplemental Town funding would be in addition to the assistance provided under contract.
Also at its annual meeting Thursday, the ECC Board amended its bylaws to expand agency Board membership from its current nine members to a maximum of 11 directors.
“This building is a huge responsibility,” Debbie Teeter explained. “The Board is too small now for the building.”
Some on the Board, including Teeter, briefly considered an expansion to as many as 13 directors, four more than at present. But ECC President Cortney Bailey preferred a go-slow approach, observing that expanding the board too much too fast could lead to problems obtaining a quorum at meetings. Under its rules, at least half of those appointed directors would need to attend a meeting for ECC to conduct business.
“There are things (like) too many cooks in the kitchen,” Bailey remarked, the president saying she’d prefer more active volunteers participating in ECC activities rather than appointment of an exceedingly large Board. “I’d really rather go slow and get the quorum we need,” Bailey said.
As part of its annual business, the ECC Board reappointed six of its current members to new, two-year terms. No one was appointed to the two additional slots the ECC created.
And annual meeting attendees took time to bask in the success of ECC’s most recent event, the “Grown Up Gala,” a semi-formal prom for adults, the Gala held for the first time February 11. Some 40 people attended, including up to a dozen couples.
“This qualifies as a very large hit,” Bailey proclaimed.
Sampling Site to stay put as Tompkins subsidies end
CMC Exec claims testing efforts saved 181 Lives
by Robert Lynch, February 22, 2023; expanded reporting February 23, 2023
Despite a momentary scare blamed on a CEO’s inadvertent twist of the tongue, Cayuga Medical Center made clear Wednesday it has no plans to shutter its much-heralded and heavily-used COVID-19 Sampling Site at the Shops at Ithaca Mall in Lansing. The testing Site’s operation will continue despite declining numbers of patient samples drawn and the ending of Tompkins County Government’s subsidy to the facility.
Talk of the sampling site’s future emerged as Cayuga Health Systems’ President, Martin Stallone, praised the three-year old sampling effort and his hospital’s role in it to the Tompkins County Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
“We were several times more tested and had a several times lower positive rate than the next highest county,” Stallone said, the executive blanketing the committee with comparative statistics and a step-by-step timeline chronicling how Cayuga Health’s local sampling effort began in March 2020 and wound to the present three years later.
Though Tompkins County financial support for the mall-based sampling center ended in December, Stallone did not at Wednesday’s meeting ask County lawmakers for any more money. And neither did committee members raise that possibility.
Rather, the direction of Stallone’s half-hour briefing became one of COVID viewed through the rear-view mirror. He reported Cayuga Health performed more than 2.7 Million COVID-19 tests during the nearly three-year period. 279,000 of those samples were drawn at the Lansing mall’s drive-through site. Many more were performed on college campuses. Tompkins County funded the cost of more than 75,000 of the tests.
“Those funds that came through those tests paid for more than simply the test,” Stallone explained, the administrator revealing, now in hindsight, the rather fungible nature of Tompkins County’s subsidies. County funds paid, he said, for “the development of the test. It paid for the drive-through. It paid for a lot of the vaccination efforts that we undertook.”
Tompkins County began subsidizing the CMC testing program in August 2020; five months after the pandemic began. The Legislature initially transferred $300,000 from its Contingent Fund to the testing program for what started as a 10-week trial run. The subsidy enabled local residents without qualifying insurance to obtain COVID-19 tests free of charge, thereby avoiding trips to state facilities in distant cities.
Over time, the federal government assumed a sizable, nearly total, share of the cost. Yet periodic local appropriations still proved necessary. Tompkins County made its last recorded draw from the Contingent Fund, $200,000, in June of last year. In July, Washington scaled back its subsidies, and Tompkins County ended its own contributions at year’s end.
The lack of governmental support, coupled with the declining numbers of patients requiring the tests, had raised the prospect that CMC might scale back its efforts, or perhaps even close its mall-based facility altogether. During a conference call with municipal officials February 2, County Administrator Lisa Holmes said she was not aware of what CMC planned to do.
In his presentation to the legislative committee Wednesday, CMC executive Stallone maintained that the testing program has returned quantifiable rewards not only in community health, but also in economic resiliency.
“A positive test is a positive test,” Stallone conceded. “But what it (the testing program) really did was equip a public health response that allowed those individuals to confidently isolate or confidently not isolate. And so they allowed our economy to continue to run.”
The statistics most likely to break out from Stallone’s half-hour legislative briefing remain figures one must accept with a degree of caution and the clear recognition that Tompkins County stands in a place far apart from the rest of this state because of the overwhelming dominance of college students.
The CMC-collected figures showed Tompkins County with the highest COVID testing rate in the state and the lowest per capita percentage of COVID-19 deaths. The data showed that, on average, a Tompkins County resident was tested for the disease more than 29 times, and that the positivity rate of those tested was only 0.87 per cent, far below the statewide average.
“The cumulative positive rate was the lowest,” Stallone said, “because we did more surveillance testing than anyone else.”
But CMC cannot take all of the credit. Recall that for most of the period, Cornell demanded its students—many of them healthy students—get tested for the disease, sometimes weekly.
And our county’s low mortality rate—only 100 persons died in a county of 105,000 (0.095 per cent)—also deserves clarification. Yes, testing matters. But so, too, does Tompkins County’s high vaccination rate, its residents’ masking compliance, and the fact that so many of us here are so young.
Comparing Tompkins County’s COVID mortality rate to the statewide average led Stallone to claim that local efforts saved nearly 200 lives that would otherwise have been lost.
“If our COVID mortality was average, we would have lost 181 more people than we did based on our population,” Stallone told the committee. “So I think that’s something that I think this body should take credit for.”
“This is an example of where investments were made and lives were saved because of that investment,” the hospital CEO asserted.
But did age matter? Newfield legislator Randy Brown asked the question.
“So you do generally have a younger, healthier population,” the hospital chief conceded. “But I don’t think that accounts for everything.”
Martin Stallone advised the committee—albeit erroneously—that college undergraduates generally don’t count in Tompkins County’s population totals, except, he said, when they live locally or attend graduate study. That may have been true when Dr. Stallone, as he recalled, resided as a student in Cornell’s Clara Dickson Hall. But the census now counts undergrads as local residents in its totals.
Martin Stallone made a second error. And when he did it briefly led any observer (including this writer) to infer that the mall-based sampling will imminently close; or for that matter, that CMC had already shuttered it surreptitiously.
At the end of his presentation, with his PowerPoint slide indicating progress made in February 2023, Stallone stated, “We actually closed the COVID testing at the mall with the (testing) totals that I listed before, 2.77 million tests.”
This writer dutifully reported the CEO’s words, inferring probable closure, only to retract that implication later Wednesday afternoon after the hospital corporation’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications clarified.
“If I said it incorrectly, I apologize,” Melissa Tourtellotte conveyed her boss’s correction and contrition. “What Stallone meant to say,” Tourtellotte rephrased, was that the analysis of sampling results—not the sampling itself—is being transferred from a Cayuga Medical site on Brown Road, its “Innovation Lab,” to CMC’s hospital on West Hill.
“It will be an invisible change to the public,” Tourtellotte said. She indicated that sampling for COVID-19 will remain in place at the mall for the indefinite future.
Tourtellotte’s reassurance ended two hours of journalistic bewilderment arising from the fact that the site’s potential closure didn’t square with information posted on the CMC website. And staff at the sampling center’s registration call center knew nothing about any locational change.
In the County Legislature’s chambers, committee members never acknowledged the administrators gaffe, nor reacted to the potential news. Instead, they showered CMC with praise for its accomplishments.
Tompkins County’s COVID response and its vaccination effort was “kind of thrilling on top of this terrible thing that was going on,” Health and Human Services Committee Dan Klein offered as a rather odd kind of compliment for a pandemic response.
“People have used the word ‘hero’ when it comes to the pandemic,” committee member Amanda Champion remarked. “And as you were describing it,” Champion told Stallone, “I thought, like, my gosh, there were people in these labs like actually doing the work, like that’s so amazing. And I’m so grateful that our county was supportive of that.”
What lessons were learned, Randy Brown asked.
“We certainly have lubricated our agility joints,” Martin Stallone responded. “We have practice in thinking out of the box and being bold.”
“You’re always fighting the last war,” Stallone acknowledged. “So the most challenging public challenge is the one we’re not expecting. I think if COVID happened again, we’d do very well. I hope we would do as well with a novel threat that we haven’t experienced yet.”
Hey, New York: You Owe Us!
Locals move to block Albany’s Medicaid money-grab
by Robert Lynch, February 21, 2023
There’s an old tax-time adage: “What Washington giveth, Albany taketh away.” And now, with one costly, soon-to-be-assessed mandate, it’s as plain as the eye can see. And you may feel the bite next January when you pay your county tax bills.
With limited debate and by a unanimous vote, the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday urged New York State to preserve the intent of Congress and not allow state regulators to hijack supplemental federal Medicaid spending that locals insist counties like theirs were always supposed to be paid.
“We received notice recently from the Association of Counties that based on their recent conversations with the Governor’s Office (that) it does not appear there’s an appetite to restore these pass-throughs for 2023 or at any date in the future,” County Administrator Lisa Holmes notified the Tompkins County Legislature at its Tuesday night session.
“This is not pretty,” Dryden Legislator Mike Lane later observed.
Holmes’ financial warning was sobering, and the consequences of what we taxpayers could suffer are dire. A Department of Social Services number-cruncher told Holmes that should State fiscal managers hold true to their plans, approximately $610,000 or more could be cut beginning in April from New York’s Medicaid disbursements to Tompkins County. An additional $1.5 Million could be cut in 2024.
“If enacted,” said Holmes, this year’s cut “would mean the consideration of hiring delays, or a hiring freeze, stopping the purchases of larger pieces of highway equipment, and it will also impact projections for what we can afford going into negotiations with our bargaining units.”
And beginning next year, Holmes warned, taxpayers, too, could feel the pinch.
In 2024, “we’d start out the budget process immediately with a three per cent increase in the tax levy without some further action being taken,” Holmes said. Keeping within the state-specified (and largely aspirational) tax cap, she said, could prove next to impossible.
“We need to underscore how serious this is for our county’s budget and all county budgets across the state,” Holmes warned.
The circumstances that led to this suddenly-erupted financial crisis are of the kind bound to make any tax-weary New Yorker mad as Hell. And they stand as just another example of Albany’s budget-balancing, pass-the-buck greed.
Legislators were told that when Congress adopted, under the Affordable Care Act, its “Enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentage Fund to Counties” (or so-called “ACA E-F-Map Funding”), Washington intended that the states, including New York, that require counties to share a portion of Medicaid burdens, would themselves pass some of the ACA supplements down to the local level.
“And in fact, New York State agreed to do that when they first received this money,” legislator Rich John told his legislative colleagues.
But something changed along the way, he said. Somehow, all those millions in county pass-through funds got gobbled up in the inner-works of Albany’s internal bureaucracy. And now it seems the State has simply chosen to keep the money for itself.
“They’re saying they’re reconciling the payments,” John stated, the legislator employing one of those typical eye-glazing terms bureaucrats use. “But that has been a completely opaque process,” he continued. “We haven’t seen the money. And now the current proposal is to just have the State keep all the money, while asking for more services; enhancing the services. And we’ll be paying the cost locally.”
“So the hit comes in more than one way,” Rich John concluded. “And it’s not what the federal Congress intended. So that’s why it’s pretty upsetting.”
One week before many on the Tompkins County Legislature will troop to Albany for a meeting of the New York State Association of Counties, those same legislators adopted the Resolution Tuesday calling upon the State to reverse-course and restore Congress’ intended pass-through of the ACA money to local coffers.
“The Resolution you will be considering tonight is an important step in advocacy to try to stop these cuts from taking place,” Holmes said.
“Lisa’s comments were pretty compelling,” Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson, a fiscal hawk, told Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re just going to have to put as much pressure on our State Legislature as possible to override this proposal by the Governor,” Dawson said.
But in typical Albany it-wasn’t-my-fault fashion, Governor Kathy Hochul may have slyly kept her fingerprints off this major-impact money grab. The Executive’s proposed budget, we’re told, never referenced the funding holdback, and all the real blame may be buried down in some regulatory rabbit-hole, virtually impossible for the Legislature to excavate or ever correct.
“This may be out of their hands,” Mike Lane worried.
Lane pointed out that New York is one of only two states in the nation where local counties still bear a partial burden for Medicaid funding, subsidies that underwrite medical care for low-income residents. And of those two states, New York counties, Lane said, pay the highest percentage. The Dryden Democrat equated New York’s mandated county contribution to an effective statewide property tax, but a tax for which Albany-based lawmakers never get the blame.
New York’s counties, Lane complained, “get treated like poor relations.” And when it comes to assessing the cost, he said, Albany’s message handed down is this: “You do this, and you raise the money.”
The “Death” of a Good Judge
LaSalle, the Democratic Party, and Me
Analysis and Commentary by Robert Lynch, February 20, 2023
Lea Webb, my State Senator, disappointed me last week. So did 37 of her Democratic Party colleagues, members of New York’s upper chamber. Each of them put politics above principle, innuendo over intelligence, and rejected a skilled, experienced jurist, Hector LaSalle, to become Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, New York’s Highest Court. When they did, dismissing the choice of their own—and my own—party’s governor, Kathy Hochul, they betrayed the public’s trust. And they betrayed mine as well.
With LaSalle’s rejection, I have lost confidence in the majority party that governs our Empire State. The wound that the majority Democrats inflicted on me, and on us, cuts deep. It may never heal. And because the party that holds the votes in Albany to enact our laws and confirm our judges has chosen to walk away from me, I may choose, in time, to walk away from them. The choice of a Chief Judge matters to me. It matters a lot. Hector LaSalle’s rejection may force for me a pivotal course correction.
Governor Hochul, with minimal fanfare, nominated Hector LaSalle to the Court Appeals a few days before Christmas. An expanded State Senate Judiciary Committee, packed last-minute with Hector-hostile partisans, rejected the Chief Judge nominee January 18th. By just one vote, it failed to advance LaSalle’s name to the floor. For weeks, the Majority Leader, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and her Democratic allies blocked any prospect of bringing the LaSalle nomination to the Senate floor and to allow all 63 Senators to decide the judge’s fate. Republicans sued, arguing the State Constitution demands a floor vote regardless of the committee’s recommendation.
Suddenly, surprisingly, Stewart-Cousins relented. Last Wednesday, Democrats hastily moved the nomination to the Senate floor, and just as hastily, hugging party allegiances, they voted the nomination down. The 20-39 defeat saw all but one of the Democrats present opposing LaSalle. Just one attending Republican opposed his advancement. Hooray for Democrat Senator Monica Martinez of Long Island. She, alone, had the courage to buck her party and support LaSalle. Ms. Martinez, I do not cast you in with the rest of your sorry lot.
“Haven’t we changed the game in Albany?” Senator Brad-Hoylman-Sigal, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, crowed Wednesday during a partisan-poisoned pre-vote debate. “This is a new beginning for the way we review judicial nominations, all nominations, legislation, all matters of public import. I think that’s something we should be proud of.”
Maybe for you, maybe for Democrats, but not for me. Hoylman-Sigal proved particularly hostile to Hector LaSalle during the committee’s January confirmation hearing. He often snarled at the nominee, never smiling, pointedly faulting LaSalle, and doing so particularly harshly, for LaSalle’s accepting cross-endorsement by the New York Conservative Party in a prior campaign for a lower court’s elective office. One suspects Hoylman-Sigal lives for political combat and for little else. I suspect he has more political sycophants than he has genuine friends.
“We can find a better nominee to lead this Court. And we need to do it ASAP.” Hoylman-Sigal said before he cast his vote against Hochul’s nominee, “because we have a court system that is teetering on the brink of disaster.”
His opinion. Not mine.
Senate rejection puts the nomination of Chief Judge back to square one. An advisory panel will come up with a new list of seven finalists for the appointment, from whom Governor Hochul will select a new nominee. Many on that new list could be some on the old list from which Hochul chose LaSalle. The process could take months. Our seven-member Court of Appeals could remain one jurist short into summer. The Court’s remained short-handed since the prior Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore, resigned under an ethics cloud last July.
“Now that the full Senate has taken a vote, I will work toward making a new nomination,” Governor Hochul dictated in a transparently terse three-paragraph statement, spilled from her office’s press room after Wednesday’s vote. It had a lick-your-wounds quality to it; focusing on the majority’s concession to a floor vote, rather than lamenting LaSalle’s rejection.
“This vote is an important victory for the Constitution. But it was not a vote on the merits of Justice LaSalle, who is an overwhelmingly qualified and talented jurist,” Hochul stated. She was right.
Some pundits have suggested that the Senate’s rejection of LaSalle could poison the well of intra-party political discourse in Albany, where Democrats hold veto-proof supermajorities in both the Senate and Assembly, and upcoming budget discussions often devolve to those secretive “three men (and now, women) in a room,” smoke-filled confabs, absent the nicotine.
“There’s other issues where you find common interests,” the Governor told an Albany radio host just prior to Wednesday’s vote. “I think that’s what New Yorkers want to occur. Not to have us in our respective corners with our gloves up and ready to fight.”
We’ll see. New York’s bloated, proposed budget weighs in at $227 Billion. It’s due for adoption April 1.
A “Liberal Lion” is what Senate Democrats seek, I wrote in a January 24th commentary on the nearly five-hour confirmation grilling that led to Hector LaSalle’s rejection by the Judiciary Committee. Legal observers see the Court’s residual bench as evenly-split; three judges confirmed liberals, the remaining trio somewhat to their right. So the Chief Judge appointment, to Democrats, becomes an opportunity for a much-sought lurch-to-the-left.
No doubt, last year’s rejection of the Legislature’s Democratic-gerrymandered redistricting maps is not lost on the majority’s mind. Former Chief Judge DiFiore, a perceived centrist-conservative, cast the deciding vote to invalidate those maps. Liberals want nothing more like that in the future. Their progressive agenda, they’d argue, most deserves a true believer to carry their water.
During that hour and 15-minute Senate debate last Wednesday, the shadows of Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas repeatedly loomed about the chamber.
“We know that at the federal level, our Supreme Court is a complete mess,” downstate Senator Andrew Gounardes asserted. Gun rights have been expanded; abortion rights restricted. “So at a time when this is happening at our national government, it’s even more important that state judiciary, that our state government, be both a bulwark and a beacon, in protecting and advancing the same rights that our federal Supreme Court is so quickly eroding,” Gounardes emphasized.
In Gounardes’ opinion, Hector LaSalle stands too cautious and conservative amidst this legal onslaught. “He saw the law as a narrow tool, and not as an expansive tool, sword and shield to protect the rights of litigants, to protect the rights of workers, to protect the rights of women, and so many others,” the Senator insisted. But note how Gounardes cherry-picks the subset of litigants who matter most to him.
“I met with the judge, and I thought he was extremely nice,” Albany-area Democrat Neil Breslin observed. “I thought he was capable, but he didn’t pass the total test in my estimation.” Breslin, too, voted no.
“There is a context in which the people of this state woke up to realize that judges really matter,” Westchester Democrat Shelly Mayer said in explaining her opposition. “What happened in my district is that people woke up and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Who we pick as a judge really matters.’”
“We’re not asking for a judge who calls balls and strikes,” Mayer tellingly stated, employing the baseball umpire analogy others used. “We’re asking for judges who apply the law and understand the context of what the implication of a decision means for millions of New Yorkers.”
Mayer, like Senator Gounardes, viewed Judge LaSalle’s legal outlook as too narrow. “And a consistently narrow interpretation of the law,” Mayer stated, “really is a risk to our individual constituents.”
Mayer called the day’s decision “impactful and so important.” “We can’t walk away from it because it’s hard; because it’s uncomfortable,” she said. But neither can Mayer, Gounardes or their three dozen fellow Democrats walk away from the political agenda that underlies their action.
Their words clearly amplify intent. They seek not so much a competent, knowledgeable arbiter of legal fairness as they do a loyal judicial lapdog, someone who will stretch statutes like an elastic band regardless of precedent and bend the state Constitution so as to amend it from the bench in ways that liberals find too messy or unpopular to enact through the will of the voters.
And either through ignorance or artifice, LaSalle’s Democratic opponents suggest something else. They seek to hoodwink voters into thinking the New York Court of Appeals holds some magical power to countermand the U.S. Supreme Court. In truth, it works the other way. Yes, a state court may expand constitutional liberties beyond federal standard. (That’s how the Court of Appeals in 2004 invalidated New York’s Death Penalty.) But federal supremacy prevents New York from constricting liberties that the Supreme Court insists the U.S. Constitution protects. The likes of Shelly Mayer may hate the overruling of New York’s concealed carry law. But even if state courts affirm Albany’s patchwork replacement to the law that Justice Thomas and his majority last year struck down, the Supreme Court’s majority could always declare the new law null and void. Mayer doesn’t tell you that, though I’m sure she knows it.
Senator Sean Ryan would impose a straight-jacketed career litmus test upon the next Chief Judge, one Hector LaSalle, a former prosecutor, could never meet. “My prism is someone who’s spent most of his career as a lawyer helping the dispossessed,” the Buffalo-area Democrat told colleagues. “New York State needs a Chief Judge who has a broad vision of the law, has a broad vision of how law affects society, and knows that the decisions of those courts affect everybody in society.”
I’ll credit Senator Ryan for at least being factually correct—albeit evasive—in raising for his rebuke Judge LaSalle’s handling of the one case which liberal critics most distort. It’s Evergreen Association Inc. v. Schneiderman. “The judge went out of their (sic) way to assert the rights of a crisis pregnancy center to somehow give them equal footing to spread disinformation to people in our society,” Ryan stated.
LaSalle’s opponents would like us to think that Evergreen was a holding hostile to abortion rights. When they do, they twist the truth, and it’s time to set the record straight.
When it decided Evergreen in 2017, the mid-level court on which Hector LaSalle sits ruled that the First Amendment’s Right of Association limited the State Attorney General’s reach to subpoena a Christian-aligned crisis pregnancy center’s operational and staffing records in his effort to evict center operations from a medical office building. The Appellate Court’s unanimous holding only limited—it did not block—the A.G.’s efforts to probe whether a volunteer-staffed center that provided sonograms and pregnancy tests amounted to unauthorized practice of medicine.
To assert, as LaSalle’s critics have so brazenly done, that Hector LaSalle’s joining a unanimous bench in this most diminutive crumb of legal procedure somehow makes the nominee anti-choice and unfit to serve, is to steer public sentiment on the basis of a boldfaced lie. Moreover, the strategy postures the anti-LaSalle Senate majority as not so much pro-abortion rights, as actually pro-abortion itself. Taken to its logical conclusion, Senator Sean Ryan and his liberal allies would seem to prefer that medical alternatives to abortion simply should not exist. And by citing LaSalle’s Evergreen holding as a disqualifier for promotion, Senate Democrats imply just that.
Majority Democrats would rather you read only their bumper-sticker, not the case itself. In Evergreen, Judge LaSalle had wisely sought to expand reproductive options, not limit them, albeit on fine-spun procedural grounds.
State Senate Republicans number just 21, their ranks only strong enough to raise a polemic rejoinder. By and large, they backed LaSalle.
“He has applied the law that has been passed by the Legislature,” Nassau County Republican Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick said in defense of Judge LaSalle and his record. “And that’s the job of the judiciary; to apply the law, not to legislate.”
“I support this nominee. I worked with the nominee. He is an incredible jurist who calls balls and strikes,” Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Anthony Palumbo said in support of LaSalle. “And he’s a plain old liberal Democrat, which apparently isn’t good enough.”
Suffolk County’s Palumbo is the Senator who filed suit to bring LaSalle’s nomination to the floor. The case was argued in court last Friday, with the judge then reserving decision. Some suggest the suit twisted Democratic leadership’s arm just enough to bring about last Wednesday’s vote.
“We seem to have a group of members who think that, well, if we can’t change the Constitution, then let’s change the courts,” Palumbo chided his Democratic opposition. “So we’re now going to pack a court with activists who choose not to follow the law, unlike Justice Hector LaSalle, who simply calls balls and strikes.”
Indeed. “This is a conversation about changing the strike zone, Palumbo’s Long Island Republican colleague Steven Rhoads echoed, Rhoads continuing the debate’s frequent throwback to baseball. “Because what the majority is doing, they’re not interested in somebody calling balls and strikes; they’re interested in somebody who’s going to call balls and strikes the way they want them called.”
Senator Rhoads called the majority’s handling of the LaSalle nomination “an embarrassment.” Staten Island Republican Andrew Lanza agreed.
“I think people are sick of this kind of politics,” Lanza asserted. “I think it’s wise that people back home don’t trust us, any of us, either party, because they see these types of games being played.” The downstate Republican stands wisely aware of how cynical we voters can be.
“We all know why the nominee did not come to the floor” in a timely manner, Lanza continued. “It’s because the nominee refused to give the old wink-and-nod that when he’s on the bench, he would refuse to honor the Constitution, and he would pass and support whatever radical agenda that came to his decision-making desk.”
Democrats Luis Sepulveda of the Bronx and Kevin Thomas of Long Island had each supported LaSalle in committee, yet neither attended Wednesday’s session to cast their votes. Perhaps their absence reveals the power of Andrea Stewart-Cousins to close ranks. Or perhaps it reveals something else. No matter. Even had they been present, Hector LaSalle would have lost.
Binghamton’s Lea Webb, Tompkins County’s State Senator, spoke not a word during the February 15th floor debate, the 52nd District representative casting her vote in opposition to the LaSalle nomination, but offering no statement on her office’s website to elaborate on why she did.
So Hector LaSalle, New York State’s here-today, gone-tomorrow nominee to lead its Highest Court, retreats to relative obscurity. He continues his role as Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division’s Second Department, one of four regional, mid-level appellate courts in the state, LaSalle’s covering part of New York City and the counties surrounding it. LaSalle won’t serve us, except through the overlapping precedents other regional courts may choose to observe.
Senator Palumbo, meanwhile, presses forward with his lawsuit to demand future judicial nominations reach the State Senate’s floor regardless of how Hoylman-Sigal’s committee treats them. Majority leader Stewart-Cousins’ lawyers asserted in court Friday that the issue is now moot and that Palumbo lacks standing to sue. Palumbo’s counsel counters that the case remains alive as Hochul’s next nomination could repeat the process.
News reports say State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan expressed interest in the case during oral arguments Friday. The judge termed it a “constitutional crisis,” assigning the judiciary “the duty and the obligation… to rule on the constitutional solution.” Though Whalen’s ruling on the merits is imminent, an appeal of any decision remains probable. It could rise to the now ideologically-split Court of Appeals.
“Everybody is paying attention, riveted, to who’s sitting in these seats, who’s sitting in the judiciary, who’s making these decisions,” Stewart-Cousins told reporters following the full Senate’s vote. “So it was not inappropriate for us, with the eyes of the nation and the eyes of the state on us, to look for a nominee that was able to lead the court in this really, really critical time.”
But look at a nominee what way? Should a judge be merely a judge? Or must he also serve as a legislator of last resort? New York Democrats count on your inattention and political outrage to permit them to impose their supermajority muscle over a separate branch of State Government, and to do so in a way that weakens the independent judiciary and transforms the courts into a reliable enforcer of liberal will. Separation of powers matters. Democracy matters. Quite plainly, in the war of words February 15th, Republicans made the better argument. The GOP sought blind justice. Democrats revealed they’d prefer that “wink-and-nod” from behind the blindfold.
Hector LaSalle drove up the Hudson from New York City last Wednesday and sat more or less alone in the Senate gallery, high above the floor, to watch the career opportunity of a lifetime evaporate before his eyes. He sat in silence. He declined reporters’ questions afterward. LaSalle knows he fell victim to an ideological agenda engineered by perfectionist zealots within his own party, Governor Hochul’s own party—and sadly, also, my own party. I hope Hector LaSalle took a deep breath of fresh air as he exited the State Capitol that day. Because inside the chamber, the room truly stunk.
Newfield Imposes Campground Moratorium
Town Board Acts to Stand in Second Wind’s Path
by Robert Lynch, February 9, 2023
The mood: “I’m against this,” Rick Bryant told a firehouse room full of his neighbors Thursday. “You could build the Taj Mahal here; you’re still going to be bringing the same people up here.”
“I’m against it,” another man concurred. There’s no local enforcement. “Once you get ‘em here you can’t get rid of them.”
The public sentiment was unanimous Thursday night, and so was the vote, as the Newfield Town Board, following a much-awaited Public Hearing, adopted a “Town-Wide One Year Moratorium on Campgrounds.” It’s a local law unapologetically aimed at halting Second Wind Cottages’ plans to expand its 18-unit tiny house complex for the otherwise-unhoused by adding 25 campsite cabins intended to draw many more of the homeless to Second Wind’s site off Route 13.
And while word surfaced earlier this week that Second Wind may alter its campsite plans in a transparent effort to circumvent what the Newfield Board would adopt two days later, Newfield’s leaders and the residents they represent have signaled that the changes developers propose remain to them unacceptable.
The original campground project, which already has won initial funding support from a majority on the Tompkins County Legislature, would provide a so-called “low-barrier” encampment; an unpoliced, minimally-supervised collection of cabins, which many in Newfield fear could draw to Second Wind’s site serious substance abusers, lawbreakers, and sex offenders.
“I’m worried about the property value of my home,” one Newfield woman told Thursday’s hearing. “Please protect citizens who pay their taxes,” she begged the Board.
And the Town Board responded. It did so quickly. While the Public Hearing consumed about 35 minutes’ time—shorter than had been expected—the Town Board’s response was surprisingly swift. Before voting, Board members confined their remarks to just one or two crisp sentences apiece. Apart from the hearing, the Board’s discussion and vote took less than five minutes.
“We definitely need breathing room,” Newfield Councilperson Joanne James told Board colleagues and her audience before casting her vote to support the moratorium.
“We didn’t hear anybody objecting to this moratorium,” Councilperson Heather McCarty observed.
Councilperson Christine Laughlin, the Newfield Board’s lone Republican, appeared most adamant, critical of Second Wind founder Carmen Guidi’s plans to scatter the campsites behind his auto body shop north of the Newfield hamlet.
“Carmen’s heart is in the right place,” Laughlin acknowledged during the public hearing, “but he’s not looking at the bigger picture.”
“It’s hurting our residents” Laughlin maintained. “Get out of their bubble,” she pleaded of Second Wind’s leadership.
While nearly 30 Newfield residents filled the audience for Thursday’s meeting, only about a half-dozen spoke. Most notable among them was Newfield-Enfield representative Randy Brown, the Tompkins County legislator most critical of both the Second Wind expansion and a legislative advisory committee’s recommendation to allocate $510,000 in County-apportioned Community Recovery Fund grants to construct it.
“Carmen’s heart is in the right place, but it’s bad for Newfield,” Brown said of the campground. “I think they will back away from this proposal and ask for more cottages and the same amount of money.”
And Brown’s prediction is more than just idle speculation. In a surprise announcement at the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday, County legislator Dan Klein, reading from a prepared statement, disclosed that Second Wind would likely scale back its plans, exchange its campground vision for construction of more stick-built housing on Guidi’s site, and retool its application for continued County support.
“Rather than building 25 structures in a campground-like setting,” Klein informed legislators Tuesday, “they (Second Wind) are planning to add additional cottages to their current 18 cottage facility.”
“The current version of the plan is to build 12 new cottages,” Klein’s statement said.
Klein said the Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee—of which Newfield’s Brown is a newly-appointed member—would convene March 6 to review a revised funding request that Klein expects Second Wind to submit.
But neither the revised construction configuration nor the special favor granted Second Wind to let it take a second bite from the Tompkins County funding apple please legislator Brown. The Newfield rep says he’ll oppose Second Wind’s expected resubmission, and he asked those at Thursday’s Public Hearing to join him.
“Come to the meeting and voice your opinion,” Randy Brown told hearing attendees. “They need to hear from more than just me.”
Brown’s key concern about Second Wind’s expansion, a concern shared by Newfield Supervisor Michael Allinger, involves the community’s perceived inability to provide the emergency services that vulnerable Second Wind residents might need, along with the unwillingness of Second Wind to provide them itself.
“I’ve heard from a lot of neighbors,” Allinger informed the hearing. “I’ve often heard concerns of lack of supervision.”
Of Second Wind’s campground project, Allinger opined, “It can’t move forward without better supervision. They’ve lost control.”
As the Town Supervisor’s sees it, Second Wind’s homeless population needs “supervision 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” And Allinger insists that Second Wind doesn’t provide it.
Underlying the concerns of many in Newfield is the fear that by adding the proposed campsites and likely more than doubling Second Wind’s population, Tompkins County, with the City of Ithaca in hand, is unloading Ithaca’s unsolved homeless problem—centered at Ithaca’s so-called “Jungle” behind Walmart—onto their rural community using the rationale that out-of-sight is out-of-mind.
Regarding the Ithaca homeless problem, “the County is solving it by sticking it in Newfield,” resident Aaron Miller told the Town Board Thursday.
Disclosed publicly only a month ago, and tweaked during a Town Board meeting January 26, Newfield’s one-year moratorium would direct Town officials and employees not to “begin or continue to review applications for or grant any approvals relating to a Campground within the Town.” The adopted law defines “Campground” as “any parcel or tract of land including buildings or other structures under the control of any person, where five or more campsites are available for temporary or seasonal overnight occupancy.”
The adopted Local Law imposing the Newfield moratorium directly references the originally-proposed, 25-unit Second Wind homeless encampment. The law’s text acknowledges that the campground proposal “has generated significant concern in the Town based on health and safety concerns for people of the Town and those individuals that may be housed in such camps.” Those concerns list “lack of local police, EMS, and other social services in the Town” as well as “the relatively lengthy response times for police and medical services.”
Seeking a legal foundation, language often necessary to stave off a court challenge, the law asserts that the moratorium will give Newfield officials time to rewrite the Town’s 2013 Comprehensive Plan, a document that the law maintains never anticipated the sort of encampment that Second Wind proposes nor the “health, safety, and sanitation concerns that attach to developments that have a substantial number of persons living in a small area.”
Now ratified by the Town Board, the Newfield Campground Moratorium will take effect as soon as it’s filed with the Secretary of State. After Thursday’s meeting, Newfield Town Clerk Karen Miller Kenerson said she’ll file the papers Friday. She said the Tompkins County Planning Department, whose review the law requires before adoption, has already given its consent.
Residents and Newfield Town Board members departed their meeting Thursday in general agreement they’d done all they could, though they remained anxious that despite their best efforts, more battles may need to be fought.
“It’s nice to know we all feel the same way about things,” Councilperson Laughlin told her assembled constituents.
“We’re Not Ulysses”
Enfield Planners chart contrasting course in Subdivision Rewrite
by Robert Lynch, February 6, 2023
Iradell Road might as well be the 38th Parallel when it comes to land use regulation. Members of the Enfield Planning Board made the point clear last Wednesday night as they devoted more than two hours’ time pondering intricate, often in-the-weeds revisions to Enfield’s decade-old Site Plan Review Law and Subdivision Regulations.
The Planning Board’s months-long effort stands far from finished. The February 1st meeting produced no firm recommendations. But the session did draw a clear dividing line between the mindset of those in un-zoned Enfield to the south and those who govern ultra-zoned Ulysses to the north, Iradell Road their towns’ common border. The Enfield message was clear: What happens in Ulysses should stay in Ulysses.
“I’m also concerned with making it easier for people to build houses in the Town of Enfield,” Planning Board member Mike Carpenter, a builder, told colleagues Wednesday, cautioning them against over-regulation.
“I know that having just tried to build a house in Ulysses for a young family, gone through the Zoning Review Board, gone to the Planning Review Board, and having their new zoning regulations make us have to build a $75,000 bridge over an existing creek in order to fit into the structure of the zoning thing ruined a really good piece of land because the people on the Zoning Board didn’t want to have houses with less than 400-foot frontage in their Town, which is just crazy,” Carpenter said.
Why was it done?
“I believe the Ulysses stated purpose was to preserve the farmland, and they ruined it,” Enfield Planning Board Chair Dan Walker responded. “That’s Ulysses, and we’re not Ulysses,” Walker stressed.
The Town of Ulysses’ revised Zoning Law, enacted amidst controversy in late 2019, has not proved popular, especially with farmers and with those who seek to build homes in Tompkins County’s most northwesterly town. And it has raised the question of when does a law make a minimum-sized building lot simply too big? When does a supposedly well-intentioned rule run counter to a town’s stated desire to preserve rural character? And when do local politicians’ ulterior motives drive their decision-making?
In effect, when does the lot’s size become so huge that it carves up the cornfields and cow pastures that it was supposed to preserve, turning former farmland into super-sized lawns?
The 2019 Ulysses law, according to Enfield planners, demands not only a 400-foot frontage, even on an off-the-road, so-called “flag lot,” but also sets a minimum lot size of five acres, much larger than the average home requires. And as Carpenter sees it, Ulysses couples misguided regulation with arbitrary application.
“When I went to the Board in Ulysses,” Carpenter complained, “and I said I want a variance, the five old white guys on that Board said, ‘This is what the law says. This is what you gotta’ do. We don’t want to give exceptions. It’s a law. We made it. This is what you got to do,’”
So Carpenter’s client had to build the $75,000 bridge.
“That destroys open space,” Walker replied.
“That’s what it does,” Carpenter confirmed.
Why the no-exceptions Ulysses intransigence? Carpenter inferred Ulysses’ leaders had little interest in protecting rural character. “I heard ‘We are protecting our property values;’ that’s what they were saying,” Carpenter told his Board.
“Rural Gentrification,” Walker quickly branded it.
But Ulysses need not get all the blame. Carpenter argued that other rural Tompkins County towns, Caroline and Danby in particular, are doing much the same thing.
So how should Enfield do things differently? How should hometown planners protect rural character—a stated priority in Enfield’s Comprehensive Plan—while not cutting off Enfield’s nose to spite its face? Carpenter, a former Town Board member, led Wednesday’s debate. And Carpenter looked not only to the future, but also to common sense.
“People are building in Enfield, for one reason, because it’s cheaper in taxes; and for another reason, because of the guy sitting over there,” Carpenter said. He pointed to Enfield Code Enforcement Officer Alan Teeter, sitting in the audience.
“Because he is a sensible building inspector,” Carpenter said of Teeter. “He interprets the laws carefully so that his people do safe things and good things, but so that they don’t get pushed out being able to build in the Town by regulation that is so inappropriate that you can’t do it.”
Though not discussed at Wednesday’s session, Tompkins County this year embarked on a consultant’s study into possibly County Government assuming and consolidating code enforcement duties; taking them away from individual towns.
In commissioning the study, County planners and politicians had said they’d envision municipalities’ opting-into unified code enforcement only if they wanted to. Those who’d prefer to enforce their own codes could continue to do so. Nonetheless, the rules could always change. And the prospect of mandatory countywide enforcement worries some in Enfield (not the least of whom is this Councilperson-writer.) We need only look at how Tompkins County’s unique, half-century old, county-wide property assessment bureaucracy has grown increasingly detached from local control.
As those who are expert in the code enforcement field observe, New York imposes a common, state-wide building code. Localities can add to Albany’s rules only minimally. The key lies in enforcement. Does the building inspector enforce those mandates with a velvet glove or an iron fist? Most in Enfield like how Alan Teeter does it.
“Enfield is one of the last holdouts,” Carpenter said, contrasting his town with those neighbors that seek tighter regulation. “And we’re not doing a zoning law.”
During a Planning Board meeting in June of last year, Enfield Supervisor Stephanie Redmond made an offhand remark that town-wide zoning “is something we should consider.” But Redmond later backtracked, apparently sensing zoning’s local unpopularity. Planning Board members also last year expressed reluctance to zone. And while Redmond and some Councilpersons have since called for modestly-increased land regulation, they’ve avoided mentioning the “Z-word,” perhaps respecting the term’s toxicity.
During Wednesday’s Planning Board discussions, Supervisor Redmond offered few comments as she ran the meeting’s streaming controls. No other member of the Town Board participated. State law discourages their input.
“There’s more young people having babies, and the world is just getting way, way bigger,” Carpenter told the Planning Board. “And for me, being one of these reformer people, I’d say let’s put Enfield 50 years ahead of what the world is going to look like, and let’s start making our regulations in keeping with what the world’s going to be looking like 50 years from now, or 20 years from now, or whatever we can deal with.”
Carpenter did not offer specific suggestions Wednesday on how to fulfill his futuristic goal. But he did warn of what to avoid.
“Let’s not look at what happened in the past. Let’s not go to other people’s laws,” Carpenter said. “Let’s think ahead and say, how can we make Enfield a good place to live for everybody; for the new people coming in, for people that have lived here for a long, long time; and not make it the Republican method or the Democrat method, or the ‘I’ve-already-lived-here’ method, or the ‘I-need-someplace-to-live’ method.”
“I’d like at least to think about what do we want Enfield to look like in terms of residential properties in the future,” Carpenter added. “Enfield is a great Bedroom Town right now.”
Board member Henry Hansteen asked what that term meant. Carpenter replied that “Bedroom Town,” to him, meant “a whole bunch of residences, not much business, and there’s no shopping malls here.”
If that’s the definition; yep, that’s Enfield. Carpenter estimated three-quarters of his town’s morning commuters head east, toward Ithaca and Cornell.
Vision eventually stepped aside to make way for substance at the Planning Board meeting. Most carefully examined—in part, an outgrowth from the Ulysses discussion—was how a revised Site Plan Law should treat “flag lots,” those with minimal road frontage but with greater width away from the road and behind other parcels. Board Chair Dan Walker would tighten Enfield’s rules and require any new lot to have as much as 150 feet of road frontage to qualify for review as a “minor” subdivision. Any lot with less road frontage would demand more exacting review as a “major” subdivision. Right now, a subdivided flag lot with as little as 15 feet along the road—a state requirement—can be treated as “minor.”
“I don’t understand the road frontage, 150 feet… why that’s needed?” Hansteen asked.
“I’m not saying you can’t build lots that have 50 feet of frontage or 20 feet of frontage,” Walker said. “But you’re going to go through the major subdivision review process.”
Walker based his proposed revision, in part, on a preference that a flag lot, perhaps one from which many other homes would later branch, should be wide enough to accommodate a future road, and also allow planners’ review to consider future growth.
But Carpenter worried that such heightened subdivision review could burden the builder. “They have to do a whole lot of stuff and spend a whole bunch of money,” Carpenter warned. “And I don’t see that we need to do that.”
Homes set back from roadways are common in Enfield, and they’ve become more common with each passing year. Supervisor Redmond pointed out that she, herself, lives at the back of a quarter-mile driveway.
“It’s happening all over,” Dan Walker responded, noting vacant land’s increasing scarcity.
“People are trying to find a place to build a house,” Carpenter chimed in. He, too, lives far back from the road.
The meeting ended with Walker’s road frontage issue unresolved, though the Planning Board did appear headed toward widening a new lot’s required road frontage to at least 20 feet, so as to marry the requirement with that imposed by the state’s Fire Code.
“I think it needs at least 25 feet,” Carpenter interjected. Indeed, the width could widen to 50 feet before the Board’s work is done.
The Enfield Planning Board has set no deadline for completing its Subdivision and Site Plan Law overhaul. Any changes require formal approval by the Town Board.
For the Planning Board, patience and precision appear to outweigh expediency in revising the law so as to suit Enfield best.
“I am just concerned that if we’re going to do this in Enfield, let’s get it right,” Mike Carpenter said.
And of course, the unspoken edict, don’t mimic Ulysses.
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