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It's interesting to me how ofter seemingly great ideas hit the wall of government with a resounding smack like a cat leaping after a toy without calculating the fact that a wall is solid and painful when it hits, yowls in surprise, pain, and embrrassment before sliding down to the floor.  Two recent development proposals come to mind, both of them involving small rental houses.  One, in the Village of Lansing would eventually bring 107 rental cottages, arranged in pocket neighborhoods, on 40 acres of property in the Village of Lansing.  The second would build five 'micro-cottages' to a small triangle, just over an acre, of land in the Town of Lansing.

In this day and age, who doesn't love tiny houses?  And even though these proposed houses are bigger than the strict definition of a tiny house (400 square feet or less), who wouldn't love the idea of a hobbit-style community nestled within our community?

In the case of the Village of Lansing, the answer to that question is the neighbors.  When they bought their properties they agreed to build large single family houses on their lots.  A second phase of that development never materialized, and the covenant was dissolved for the property that would have been Phase 2 in order to sell to the cottage community developer.  There are zoning restrictions that may or may not bring the 107 down to a slightly lower number, but the main issue village officials are facing is that of the covenant and the neighbors' heartfelt opposition to locating the community next door.

Even while acknowledging the problem one planning board member said she would love to move her parents into the development.  The developers are a local Ithaca family.  So it's not the idea that people hate.  It's the location.

The second would place 5 little rental houses on a triangle of land near the intersection of Hillcrest and Warren Roads.  You might be able to fit a couple of larger houses there according to current zoning, but for three things: even though it is arguably part of or at least contingent to a residential piece of Lansing, it happens to fall on the edge of an Industrial/Research (IR) zone.  Second, the current zoning does not allow that many homes on that small a piece of property (and it is too small to treat it as a PDA, which would define the zoning for that specific property if it were allowed).  And third there is no provision in Lansing use ordinances for tiny homes, or very small ones.

The project engineer argued that this little development perfectly aligns with Lansing's recently adopted comprehensive plan revision, and he is right.  It does.  But unfortunately for this developer, a local Lansing couple, land use ordinance changes come after a comprehensive plan is adopted, because the plan guides the changes.  So even though these little houses amount to five free-standing apartments (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, 1 living room / kitchen and nothing else), town law doesn't have a niche for them.  Even if they get a use variance, the Planning Board will have to figure out a way to allow the density, the Villages of Lansing and Cayuga Heights will have to figure out whether they want to provide a piece of their dwindling sewer capacity...

You could probably put five like-sized sheds on the property with no problem, so the word 'gobsmacked' comes to mind when it is so hard to build these little houses.  It appears that this kind of development has 'fallen through the cracks' of the law, that hasn't quite caught up to the modern notion of tiny houses.

Zoning laws certainly exist to protect landowners, and zoning changes can seem like a 'taking' to the existing nearby residents if municipal officials aren't very, very careful.  Protecting residents' property values is a good civic function.  Even if elected and appointed officials didn't give a fig about doing that, keeping the assessments high means more taxes, so they have that motivation.

Cayuga Orchards has been stalled for years because there was no sewer.  Milton Meadows has been adjusted, again, because of the absence of sewer and the high cost of maintaining its own small, private sewer treatment plant, even if it could get state approval to build one.  once they seemed to figure that out they were hit with not enough electricity capacity to power their apartments, especially because the absence of natural gas would force them to install heat pumps that require electricity to heat and cool.

An antenna tower in the Village that is an essential piece of NYSEG's smart meter program (it beams the data from the meters to the NYSEG building on ROUTE 13) has gone through more discussion than a mere tower should, one would think, need.  The issue?  If the wind knocks it over, will it fall on the neighboring shopping center (it's behind the Tompkins Trust Company branch on Triphammer in an existing power station.  You probably have never seen it unless you had occasion to drive behind the bank for some reason.

Speaking of towers, I remember a serious discussion by municipal authorities years ago about building a cell tower with fake branches so it would look like a tree and blend in with the countryside.  Some years later I happened to pass one on a driving trip down south.  It looked like a cell tower with fake branches painted green.

If our local tower had been required to impersonate a tree (it wasn't) we'd have been stuck with a plastic Christmas tree masquerading as a real tree, and we all know that nobody really believes those plastic trees are real.  it probably would have added extra cost, which would have been passed onto those of us who use cell phones, which is just about all of us these days!

The town of Lansing is considered to be business-friendly, and fairly developer-friendly as municipalities go.  Keep in mind that the Village of Lansing split off from the Town because its residents wanted zoning and the Town didn't.  Even though we do have zoning now, it is fairly liberal zoning.  Yet a project that the Town theoretically wants falls between what planning board member Larry Sharpsteen called "two hard places'.

I am not criticizing.  This is just the way it is.

As I have been following these two hobbity projects over the past month or so I can't help but wonder how anything at all ever gets built.  The answer seems to be that as long as the promise of profit remains, developers are willing to persevere.  Incredibly, that cat stands back up, looks around to confirm nobody actually saw that humiliating leap, and walks out of the room with as much dignity as it can muster.  As developers suffer public enmity, and the public can be quite publicly hostile in these meetings, it isn't easy to maintain dignity, yet I have seen developer after developer hold their tempers and keep working to make the project happen. That is bad for projects communities that don't want specific projects strictly on grounds that they would harm the character of the community.  But when you have projects that would be beneficial for a community, or, at least, not harmful, you have to wish that the laws would catch up to creative developers who want to build something good.

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