July 18, 2007

No moratorium, for now

City instead will focus on completing code revisions


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer    
Signs supporting a housing moratorium can be seen in neighborhoods surounding SUNY Cortland like this one on Maple Avenue.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The city Planning Commission is likely to forego a moratorium and instead concentrate on revising city code to resolve recent concerns over multi-family housing.
A permit system for rental property owners also is likely, and the city will rely on the advice of its land-use attorneys during development of the permit system and revisions to the code.
The commission met with the Common Council for a special work session Tuesday evening, and most of the commissioners said they felt a ban on all new multi-family residences would be unnecessary, as long as the city moves quickly to enact proposed code revisions that have been in the works for two years.
The moratorium could be revived at a later date, commission members Jo Schaffer and Bill Kline said after the work session.
Schaffer said a committee of code department officials, Planning Commission members and county planning officials had been working for two years to develop revisions to the code, which was last updated in 2003.
The work on the revisions has progressed about as far as it can within the committee, and Schaffer said it is now ready for review by land-use attorneys.
When asked if code revisions would be able to solve some of the problems with housing density and infrastructure and code problems, Schaffer said the city can “do a lot with that code.”
“In order to make a good document, we need good legal counsel,” Schaffer said. “Give us that legal advice now, and we could have this ready by the end of September.”
Attorneys are expected to begin review of the code revisions after the Planning Commission’s next meeting on July 23.
Alderwoman Susan Feiszli (D-6th Ward) proposed a 180-day moratorium on multi-family housing construction at the end of March. She pointed to an increase of student housing in predominantly residential neighborhoods around the college and issues with density and property maintenance connected with rental properties in general.
The city hired Skaneateles-based law firm Cheney & Blair, specialists in land-use law, which drew up a rough draft of a moratorium.
But at a meeting of the Planning Commission and the attorneys on June 19, commissioners said they did not understand the Common Council’s intent with the moratorium and requested a joint meeting.
Attorney Donald Cheney said on Tuesday that he believed a moratorium seemed out of place given the commission’s progress on the code revisions, and the revisions could probably be ready for the Common Council’s approval sometime in the fall, possibly September or October.
Cheney said he would also work with the city to develop a permitting system that would require rental property owners to pay for a permit, and would include provisions for inspecting some of the properties on a voluntary basis, if the owner chooses to comply.
Knickerbocker said an incentive program, such as a city-approved list of college housing, might entice landlords to participate.
Assistant Fire Chief Charles Glover, director of code enforcement, said the committee has been “trying to tweak most of the deficiencies that we felt that the previous revision fell short on;” for example, giving the code enforcement office more power to cite property owners, and signage regulation.
Commissioner Tom Terwilliger pointed out that, since the expertise of Cheney & Blair is available to assist in drawing up any code revisions, it would be best to start as soon as possible.
“I think that it’s work that has to be gotten to quickly — I don’t think that we should pass a moratorium and stop development,” Terwilliger said, adding a straw poll of commissioners indicated most of them felt the moratorium was unnecessary.
Kline emphasized that a moratorium would probably not be enacted any faster than the city could update its code.
The moratorium still would remain an option, Shaffer said.
“If we can’t get some code revisions done in a reasonable amount of time, I’m coming back to these guys with a moratorium,” he said.
This morning, Feiszli said that she hoped the council would approve the creation of an oversight and advisory committee, consisting of residents, reputable landlords, realtors, and developers, to make sure that the “these issues of concern are addressed” by the committee handling the code revisions.
“We’re going to make them accountable,” Feiszli said.
Although she has sent e-mails to gauge the opinion of the Common Council members, Feiszli said that she has yet to receive any responses.
West Court Street resident Vivian Bosch, who is active in the Neighborhood Hill Association — the organization that provided the “Moratorium Now!” signs seen around the city — said she will supply the commission and the council with a list of issues surrounding land use.
“I don’t understand the reluctance about having a moratorium, because fixing the code and having the moratorium can happen at the same time,” Bosch said.



Consultant hired for city plan

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Thoma Development Consultants will begin work on the city’s new comprehensive plan in August, Thoma Development project manager Wes Pettee informed the Common Council on Tuesday.
Pettee said it would likely take 15 or 16 months before the document would be ready for approval.
The city received a $54,000 state Department of State Quality Communities grant to pay for the costs of the project.
Pettee said this morning that Thoma Development’s proposed labor costs would be about $57,000, with a total project cost of $58,300. The city is going to have to make up the difference, Pettee said.
Thoma charges an hourly rate for its employees, and Pettee said that the rest of the administrative costs would help pay for surveys associated with the project.
City Director of Administration and Finance Andy Damiano said the city went through the standard request for proposal process for the development of the comprehensive plan, and Thoma Development was the only respondent.
Pettee said the plan should be ready for adoption by December 2008, and it would take any other local or regional planning documents into consideration during the process.
The last citywide plan was approved in 1991, and Pettee said the new plan would take shifts in demographics into account, and that two “focus topics” would include the areas surrounding SUNY Cortland and the Cortland Regional Medical Center.
Alderman Tom Michales (R-8th Ward) said he believes the Riverside Plaza area should be another area that receives significant attention.
The next step, Pettee said, is for the Common Council to determine what groups would work with Thoma Development throughout the process.
“We can help you develop a cohesive and diverse steering committee that will guide the process,” Pettee said.
Thoma Development would guide the plan’s development, organizing three or four “visioning sessions” which would accept input from the public for inclusion in the document.
When Alderman Jim Partigianoni (D-7th Ward) asked what the comprehensive plan would accomplish, Pettee responded that it is the basis of all future land planning decisions.
“There’s opportunities for securing grant funding (for city economic development and other projects) … and the comprehensive plan, when finished, can be cited,” as well, Pettee said.


City to study fire department space needs

Staff Reporter

The city is looking into hiring an architectural firm to determine the space needs of the Cortland Fire Department and determine if either of two possible locations for expansion is feasible.
The council at its meeting Tuesday night discussed the scope of a feasibility study to determine options for the fire department. The department has long contended that the 100-year-old Court Street fire station is far too small to meet the needs of a modern department.
Two pieces of property are in consideration, Damiano said — the former Ames Linen building next to the existing fire station on Court Street, and an undisclosed property nearby.
The Ames building will be demolished within the next month, building owner Bud Ames said.
An architectural firm would make an “evaluation of space needs of the fire department based on interviews with fire department personnel,” Damiano said, which would include drawing up a rough site plan and cost estimates for any expansion. The city has received estimates of at least $20,000 for the cost of the study, and newly-built fire stations from comparable departments have cost around $3 million.
The first thing that needs to be decided is whether a renovation and expansion of the Court Street station is feasible, Damiano said.
“If the report comes back and says that (expanding the station) is not advisable, then we have to start looking at other locations,” he said. “We’ve never really had a handle on how much space we need.”
The roof of the fire station is in need of repairs immediately due to damage the tile roof incurred during the spring snowmelt and recent thunderstorms. Damiano said the cost would be between $45,000 and $50,000.
He recommended that the council issue a bond anticipation note that would eventually be rolled into a larger bond issue for additional work to the fire station. Damiano said he would look into the work, and return before the council within the next regular meeting or two for permission to issue a request for proposals.
The study would be completed by the end of October or early November, he said.



City school board OKs district tax rates

Staff Reporter

The city Board of Education approved a $13.4 million tax levy and tax rates for municipalities within the school district Tuesday night.
There was no discussion or dissent. Board members Lisa Hoeschele and Mike Doughty were absent.
Director of Business Services Stephen Pearsall said all municipalities have tax rates less than what was estimated during the budget hearing and in the budget booklet.
The tax rates were adjusted after the final equalization rates and tax rolls were available.
The tax levy represents a 2.5 percent increase from the 2006-07 levy of $13,018,424.
The rates are as follows:
* Cortland, $20.39 per $1,000 of assessed property value, up 80 cents or 4.1 percent;
* Cortlandville, $17.66, down 76 cents or 4.1 percent;
* Dryden, $19.03, up $1.76 or 10.2 percent;
* Harford, $17.30, up 35 cents or 2.1 percent;
* Lapeer, $16.09, down $6.37 or 28.4 percent: and
* Virgil, $18.62, up 22 cents or 1.2 percent.
District residents should receive their tax bills by Aug. 1. They are due by Aug. 31. Half of the bill can be paid in February, but residents will have to pay interest on what is still owed.
The next summer meeting is Aug. 21, a change in date from what had been set for Aug. 28. During this meeting, the board is expected to make a decision on adding a girls junior varsity tennis team.



Homer resident filing suit against the town

Staff Reporter

HOMER — A woman who claims her neighbors are illegally running a business out of their home is filling a lawsuit against the town.
“It does no good to talk to the town, they’ve ignored every plea,” said Valleri Mack, of 1450 Ayers Road.
She said she and her family are claiming the town has erred by not already asking the State Supreme Court to hold the Sweeneys, who own Sweeney’s Pest Control and live at 1465 Ayers Road, in contempt of court.
Mack has sent the town six letters since October, the month by which the town said the Sweeneys had to move into their new 7 N. West St. business location. The letters contained accusations of business activity to and from 1465 Ayers Road and asked the town to take “immediate action.”
Business activity cited includes pesticide vehicles going to and from the Sweeney residence at the same rate as before, sometimes carrying pesticide-related equipment and remnant liquid.
Any business activity would violate a 2005 state Supreme Court ruling stating that under the town’s zoning laws the Sweeneys cannot operate their business out of their home. The Sweeneys are disputing they use their home for any business use.
At the town’s June 6 regular board meeting the town decided to get affidavits from both sides to help it determine whether it has enough evidence to take the Sweeneys to court.
It has gotten those affidavits but has not had sufficient time to review them in order to make a decision, Town Supervisor Fred Forbes said at a special board meeting Tuesday night, noting that some affidavits only came in Tuesday.
Mack said that is not an excuse, and that the town had months to look into the matter.
Sweeney’s affidavit states that his family has stopped all business use of the property, but that traffic has not let up. He said that is because his family is very busy. For example, day care providers go t  the house, a speech therapist visits the house and he coaches Babe Ruth baseball.
Also, the family attends two to three church functions a week, and various rental properties require the family to travel back and forth.
The board is hoping to make a decision at its Aug. 8 regular board meeting.