Maybe Death by Delay

Newfield Advances Moratorium to Block Second Wind

by Robert Lynch, January 13, 2023

Carmen Guidi’s dream of building more than two dozen cabins for the homeless behind his Route 13 collision shop plays far better in the chambers of the Tompkins County Legislature than it does at the Newfield Town Hall, a fact proven again Thursday night.

“Safety, warmth, friendship, and community.” Dave Shapiro pleads Second Wind’s attributes to the Newfield Town Board.

In late-December, a majority of the Tompkins County Legislature refused to drop Guidi’s proposed Second Wind Campsites from a list of local agencies targeted to receive millions from the County’s Community Recovery Fund.  The Legislature’s 8-5 vote kept Second Wind in the running to snag $510,000 for its project.

But Thursday night in Newfield, the Town Board showed little support for Guidi’s efforts.  Clearly taking the temperature of its community, the Board scheduled an early-February Public Hearing on a local law that would impose a one-year moratorium on “campsites.”  The lengthy, lawyer-crafted document, read aloud at the meeting, directly targets Second Wind’s proposal to build its 25 cabins for the unhoused.  And because the moratorium, if adopted, would stall any campsite construction until at least spring 2024, the moratorium could make future County funding a moot issue.

The federal moneys that back the Community Recovery Fund are time-sensitive, Tompkins County legislator Randy Brown explained near the end of Thursday’s meeting.  Moneys have to be allocated by a set date, he said.  And “a moratorium would make it difficult to do,” Brown maintained.

“I don’t feel comfortable in my home anymore,” an online participant who identified herself on her zoom tile as “Pam” told the Town Board during what turned into nearly a half-hour of public comment.  “I’m against this,” she said of Second Wind’s expansion.  “Nothing would (have) me leave my home faster.”

Pam was among a majority of commenters who addressed the Newfield Board in opposition to the homeless shelters.  Three persons spoke in the project’s favor, too.  Yet two of them were campsite officials, including Carmen Guidi himself.

Guidi spoke of his humanitarian efforts to help provide the unhoused a second chance at life.  He related the story of “Danny,” a homeless man he once befriended in Ithaca’s makeshift encampment, the so-called “Jungle.”  Later, Guidi said, he found Danny hanging from a tree, a suicide.  Guidi emotionally explained that such tragedies have guided him to provide the homeless a better existence, and do so on his property, right behind his shop.

A second supportive voice:  The proposed Second Wind campsites would provide the homeless “safety, warmth, friendship and community,” Dave Shapiro, executive director of Second Wind, told the Town Board.  Those already residing at Second Wind’s existing 18 “cottages,” the small, permanent, tiny houses that wrap around the collision shop, “find living in Newfield to be a beautiful thing,” Shapiro said.  And the homeless, he added, “do better when they’re brought to nature,” in places like Newfield.

“I want to keep them dry, keep them warm.” Carmen Guidi, addressing the Tompkins County Legislature, January 3rd.

But Shapiro’s was a minority position.  Newfield’s critics fear Guidi’s generosity would only export a hefty slice of Ithaca’s crime- and addiction-plagued homelessness problem to their rural community, a hamlet lacking the police presence, the anti-addiction services, or the emergency response times needed to protect both Second Wind’s new inhabitants and Newfield’s permanent residents.

“I sympathize with Carmen,” one Second Wind critic told the Town Board.  “His heart is in the right place…. But I’m concerned of a criminal element released into the community,” including pedophiles.  “We don’t have services for these people,” the commenter said.

Most disturbing to many are Second Wind’s plans to accommodate at the cabins “low barrier” homeless populations, persons with drug and criminal histories, including past sex crimes.

Anecdotal stories punctuated Thursday’s meeting; complaints alleging that crime spawned by Ithaca’s “Jungle” behind Walmart has spilled into Ithaca’s West End neighborhood.  One commenter talked of overdoses and problem patrons reaching as far as the Ithaca Agway.  Another alleged he can’t even pay for his gasoline after-hours at Elmira Road’s Byrne Dairy because the store must keep its doors locked for safety. Of the eight who addressed the Board, five urged the Town Board block Second Wind.

And indeed the Board will likely do that.  As read at the meeting, and then slated for the February Public Hearing, the lengthy, heavily-lawyered proposed local law would place a temporary one-year, town-wide moratorium on the “review or applications for campsites,” as well as the housing they would include and the facilities built to support campsite residents.  Violation would carry a $10,000 per day fine.

The local law grounds its moratorium on the “significant concerns of the Town Board” on “health and safety” issues, on  maintaining the “rural nature of the Town,” and on “lack of services and long response times.”

The language states a moratorium would allow Newfield an opportunity up update its Comprehensive Plan to address the concerns about projects like Second Wind, and it would allow the Board to enact controls currently unavailable in un-zoned Newfield.

But perhaps most important, the one-year moratorium is strategic.  Once it expires, whether or not a new law governing campsites is on the books, the Tompkins County money that many supporters see as essential to expand Second Wind might have evaporated.  Some, like legislator Brown, would like to have Second Wind’s $510,000 diverted to other Recovery Fund applications that failed to win an advisory committee’s support.  Some of those also-ran applicants find their home in Enfield.

Hand in hand with its move forward toward a moratorium, the Newfield Town Board also Thursday exercised its option to pre-empt the town’s Planning Board from passing final judgment on Second Wind’s site plan.  By unanimous vote, the Town Board voted to “take on site plan review” for Guidi’s proposed cabins.  The Board had previously also opted to become lead agency on Second Wind’s required environmental review.

The 18 Second Wind “cottages” as they look today.

A “transplanted tree-hugger community” now populates the Planning Board, one of Thursday’s publicly-commenting critics of Second Wind bluntly alleged. 

Newfield Town Supervisor Michael Allinger and his four Town Councilpersons are low-key, never flamboyant, legislators.  Like Town Board members of an earlier era, they conspicuously avoided interjecting themselves Thursday into their community’s a thorny debate.  They listened.  They then acted.  They offered little comment that begged for quotation.

“I think it’s going to take time,” Councilperson Casey Powers remarked at one point in forecasting a huge turnout for the February 9th hearing.  “My feeling is it’s going to take hours.”

Another Board member questioned whether the Board would need to hold a second hearing should it modify the moratorium’s language after the first hearing had ended.

Attorney for the Town Thomas Smith said unless there’s “drastic change,” a second hearing won’t be needed.  What’s “drastic,” he was asked.  “You know it when you see it,” Smith replied.

Nonetheless, the Town Board may not be able to adopt the moratorium targeting Second Wind immediately after the hearing concludes.  By law, the Tompkins County Planning Department must weigh-in.  A 40-day comment window was mentioned, its starting date never clearly defined Thursday.  And legislator Brown at a recent meeting openly feared that County staff might attempt to paper-over Second Wind’s blemishes in deference to the downtown lawmakers who support the project.

But the Town Board could still override any County Planning criticism by a super-majority vote, four votes out of five.  Judging from Board sentiment Thursday, the bar would not prove difficult to overcome.  Not a single one of the five elected to the Newfield Town Board appeared eager that night to have those 25 cabins for the homeless come anywhere near to them or their neighbors.  Many in Newfield see homelessness as mainly Ithaca’s problem, not theirs.  And yes, it’s also an election year.