EVFC’s long-shot bid for downtown funding

A Déjà vu Moment in a post-Second Wind World

by Robert Lynch, May 5, 2023 (Updating a prior story)

It’s a long-shot.  Odds are it will never happen.  Everything would need to fall into place just right.  But if history repeats itself, and if misfortune befalls a Danby communal farm the same way it confronted a Newfield homeless camp, the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company could become the beneficiary of downtown funding it could use to build a bunk room, or do whatever else it had planned to do with money its leaders thought they’d lost the chance to receive.

All hands up. The County Legislature approves applicants for second-round Community Recovery funding, May 2.

A list of 14 winning applicants for the Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund raced through a legislative committee last Monday.  The full Tompkins County Legislature dutifully ratified it the next night.  And barring an all-too-familiar stumble that involves one awardee’s securing a local municipality’s consent, the varied collection of non-profits, governments, and at least one business will now gobble up the left-behind $510,000 that Second Wind Cottages forfeited when it gave up on its Newfield–based housing plan for the homeless.  That winning list of 14 includes the Town of Enfield, but not its Fire Company.  The EVFC rated just two candidates beneath the funding line.

But here comes that familiar twist:  In a sense, the same plight that derailed Second Wind’s filing under Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund could also infect one of the newly-qualified recipients, a minority-focused cooperative farm planned for rural Danby, Khuba International. And the EVFC, so they say, has skin in the game.

“Déjà vu,” Groton legislator Lee Shurtleff remarked during the Legislature’s discussion of Khuba’s $74,000 Recovery Fund award Tuesday.  He was the first of several legislators to say those words.  And he had reason to say it:

“The project as proposed right now is not in compliance with the Town of Danby’s zoning laws,” Dan Klein, Chair of the Legislature’s Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee, said regarding the Khuba application.  And at that point, Klein shook his head.

“So if we pass it,” Klein continued, “what we’re doing is we’re saying we’re willing to fund it, and then it goes to the Town of Danby for them to go through their process and decide whether they want to move this project forward.  We can’t override the Town of Danby zoning.”

Déjà vu, indeed.  At least on the surface, the parallels with Second Wind appear striking.  In both instances, the applicants secured their County funding promises before they got their hometown ducks in a row.

“Right now, it’s not in compliance with zoning laws.” Klein’s warning Khuba’s award faces a Danby obstacle.

On the other hand, that may be where the similarity ends.  Khuba’s “Uhuru Creek Farm” is a cooperative farm.  Second Wind Cottages’ sought to bring 12-18 previously-homeless men to Newfield, their portended arrival bringing with it all the collateral concerns about substance abuse and feared criminality.  In Second Wind’s instance, the entire Newfield Town Board and a roomful of fearful residents stepped up to oppose the homeless camp.   By contrast, for Khuba, Klein said he’s only heard from two Danby Town Board members.  Each voiced concerns about zoning non-compliance, not about the project’s risks.

Nevertheless, the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company holds a self-serving interest in the outcome of all of this.  Were Danby to deny the Uhuru Creek Farm zoning approval, Khuba would probably forfeit its County money.  And were Khuba to forfeit, the EVFC, whose trimmed-down $50,000 Recovery Fund request fell just under the cutoff line, could pick up at least some of Khuba’s then-surrendered cash.

Only a minimum $35,000 request from the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce Foundation stands between the funding line and the EVFC’s application, as scored by all 14 local legislators in recent weeks.  And under fallback procedures endorsed by the Advisory Committee last Monday, any forfeiture of less than $250,000 would prioritize the next applicant on the list without need for further committee scoring.

“Do you see a good cooperative effort going forward, or are we possibly back to the table?” Shurtleff asked Klein regarding Khuba’s prospects for zoning approval.

“It is hard for me to predict,” Klein responded. Klein, himself, represents Danby.  And about the two Town Board members’ concerns, he said, “They were supportive of the idea and the project in principle, but concerned it would violate the zoning laws.”

“So the actual Town Board has not taken a position on this yet,” Klein acknowledged.  “I really couldn’t predict what’s going to happen over there.”

Ithaca-based legislator Veronica Pillar, a long-time supporter of Khuba’s initiative, remained optimistic about the cooperative farm’s approval prospects. 

“I’m kind of like getting hearsay from folks,” Pillar told the Legislature.  “But this sounds like they have a substantively different relationship with the community than Second Wind did in Newfield.”

Before Second Wind withdrew its tentative $510,000 Recovery Fund grant in late-March, the Newfield Town Board had imposed a one-year moratorium on new campgrounds in its town, a move targeted to blunt Second Wind’s initial effort to build 18 campsite-type shelters with its newly-found money.  Second Wind responded by switching its plans to the construction of a dozen tiny houses instead.  Those 12 would complement the 25 already there.  But facing continued community resistance, Second Wind dropped that idea, too.

Ithaca’s Rich John, like other legislators, voted Tuesday to support the pair of resolutions that permitted Khuba International’s proposal to proceed.  But he also expressed the evening’s strongest reservations.

“I am ambivalent on this one,” Rich John said of the Khuba funding measure.  “I like the project, but it does have a déjà vu aspect to it.”  John noted that he’d voted against Second Wind’s funding because of Newfield’s opposition.  So he admitted his support now for Khuba’s proposal comes “with a little trepidation.”

“It does seem like there are storm clouds on the horizon; that we have two of, I believe, five Town Board members saying this just doesn’t fit at all” John said.  “And I’m uncomfortable that we’re putting them  in the position (that) they have to say ‘no’ to the project, and they’re feeling the weight of the County saying, you know, ‘come on, come on.’”

Rich John predicated his support for Khuba by sending a message to Danby’s Town Board.  That message: “This is their decision and that they’re supposed to take their zoning seriously.”

Veronica Pillar (left): “Hearsay beings me encouragement; Rich John (right): “I’m ambivalent.”

The two-resolution funding package for Khuba International, adopted Tuesday, conceded the project’s non-conformance with zoning law, but said  that “this potential impact would be adequately mitigated” should Danby amend its zoning law, grant a variance, or establish the farm as a Planned Development District.

The Danby Town Board next meets May 17th.

“I’ve been a strong proponent of the notion of comity, that the County needs to respect the home rule rights of our constituent municipalities,” legislator Deborah Dawson insisted.  But she added, “I don’t think that by voting for this we’re telling the Town of Danby how they should come down on this.”

Dawson cautioned that Tompkins County has heard from only two (so far, unnamed) Danby Councilpersons, not from the entire Danby Town Board, the Planning Board, or the Supervisor.

“So I think that we should go forward,” Dawson said, “on the assumption… that people of good will can come to some sort of agreement on this.”

The Tompkins County Legislature’s adoption of the post-Second Wind funding resolutions took only eight minutes Tuesday.  It marked an anticlimactic close to two months of committee deliberations and consultant-aided legislator scoring.  Legislators this time followed revised procedures that succeeded in quelling concerns that Advisory Committee members had wielded too much power when they reviewed the bulk of applications last fall.  In addition to Khuba, Recovery Fund applications funded this time around included  Ithaca’s YMCA, Finger Lakes ReUse, and perhaps most controversially, the Shortstop Deli, a private business.

And for the first time, the Town of Enfield Tuesday saw one of its own applications supported.   The Legislature supported the Town’s request for $26,592 to cover purchase of replacement communications radios for the Enfield Highway Department.  It was Ithaca City legislator Susan Currey, by the way, who placed the Highway radios application into consideration for its successful award.

On balance, however, during this second round, like in the last, Enfield applicants came out the losers.  In addition to the EVFC, the Enfield Community Council failed to score high enough to secure funding.  The ECC had cut its minimum funding request from $206,000 to $146,000 to underwrite the mental health addition it had hoped to build.  ECC fell to 22nd among 35 semi-finalists.

“I think this was a very fair process,” Legislature Chair Shawna Black said of the latest, second-round Recovery Fund procedures.  “Looking at the list, I think we’ve done a really good job.”

But clearly, to keep that package intact, the next move is Danby’s.  Enfield firefighters should watch to see what happens.