postheadericon Town Survey Results Will Drive Comprehensive Plan

lansing1_120Every municipality uses a comprehensive plan to guide its development.  The document is a way to look at the future residents want, as well as a road map for getting there.  Input is typically solicited from residents and that is folded into the final updated document.  Not long ago both the Town and Village of Lansing conducted a telephone survey that will be a major factor in updating their respective comprehensive plans.  Next week the Town of Lansing Comprehensive Plan Update Committee will present the results of their survey to the public. 

"The Comprehensive Plan survey shows there is an awful lot of agreement despite that north-south, old-new perspective that politically has been affecting the Town of late as evidenced by the recent election," says Town Planner Jonathan Kanter.  "There is much agreement in support of certain things."

Kanter is a professional planner who retired from the Town of Ithaca, then began consulting.  He has been working for the Town of Lansing in a half-time position for over a year, and is also a member of the Village of Lansing Planning Board as well.  That puts him in a unique position to see goals the two municipalities have in common and to help find ways for them to work together to achieve them.  That inclkuded helping to facilitate the Town and Village going 'halfsies' on the professional telephone survey.

The Town and Village have often been at odds, most recently about the level of town taxes Villagers pay.  In fact the Village originally split from the Town because of major disagreements on zoning.  The question of whether the two municipalities should merge often crops up with Town officials saying it would be more cost-effective to merge, and Village officials saying that will never happen and claiming it would cost Villagers less in taxes if the Town taxed them more fairly.   But Kanter says the two have many interests in common.  He cites the work of the Lansing Pathways Committee aligning with the Village Greenway plan, among other common interests.

"There is no question that there are some very clear differences," he says.  "The Village is a commercial center with the bigger developments there and higher density development and a much larger rental population of students in particular.  It's a different clientele that you're working with.  Despite that, from my own point of view as a planner, I've seen more in the way of commonalities and the potential to work together than differences.  I would hope that the two communities can continue to work together on those things."

Kanter notes there is also a divide within the Town itself, as was evidenced in the failed sewer project.  He characterizes it in different ways: North Lansing versus South Lansing, the old guard versus the newcomers, the inside people versus the outsiders.  But despite the differences townspeople have, Kanter says the survey shows more agreement than has been evident in public meetings and the clashes on town issues.

"The Comprehensive Plan survey shows there is an awful lot of agreement despite that north-south, old-new perspective that politically has been affecting the Town of late, as evidenced by the recent election," he says.  "People want to see trails and pathways added to the Town even if it means spending some taxpayer money.  There was quite a bit of support for having small scale businesses, mixed housing and a convenient central location inb the town center.  There is quite a bit of support for moderate income housing in the Town.   I think people realize it is becoming much rarer for people to be able afford to live here.  That's where the Town needs to come together and focus attention -- not on the negatives and the splits and the perceived differences and the political aspects of things -- and get together and use the Comprehensive Plan to bring the Town back together and start moving ahead into the future."

While the survey will provide significant direction to the Town and the Village, each municipality is gathering more information in different ways.  The Village trustees are distributing a second survey to business owners and managers because there is such a large commercial presence in the Village.  They opted not to offer a Web-based survey of residents, but the Town decided to augment the phone survey with one on the Web.

67 residents responded.  The Committee is sifting through responses to see whether they contradict the more scientific phone survey.  So far the Web results support the phone results.  Kanter says, like political surveys, a municipal survey is a snapshot in time that shows what townspeople are thinking right now.

"They may change that opinion tomorrow," he notes.  "But at this time they indicated what they were thinking."

The Town is not conducting a business survey, but they are encouraging input from individuals, and Kanter says there may be other opportunities for the public to weigh in over the coming year.

"There is always the opportunity later on in the process to have some focus group discussions," says town Planner Jonathan Kanter.  "That could be an opportunity to have a business group say here is what the business issues are.  One way or another we'll get that, whether it's though a surveyor a focus group or other separate communications remains to be seen.  It will definitely be an important part of the process."

The Village and the Town have taken different approaches to handling the updates.  The Town appointed a special committee comprised of Town Board and Planning Board members and residents who represent various interests.  The Village decided to do it in what Kanter says is the more traditional way: the Board of Trustees and the Planning Board are combining efforts to do the Village update.   He says that both ways are perfectly legitimate, but he likes the special committee approach because it is more inclusive and tends to gives a broader perspective on what is going on in the municipality.

"When you have internal groups like the Trustees and the Planning Board mainly responsible for the update you tend to have already established viewpoints on the way things are going," he says.  "They're both perfectly good ways of doing it.  The key to it is to have various points in the process where you have good public input and participation."

In addition to getting information from the public the committee has made efforts to keep residents up to date with announcements, newsletters, and on it's page on the Town Web site.  Kanter says that a full public information meeting is planned for some time soon after the survey results are presented next Wednesday (December 18th at 6pm in the Town Hall).

All of this takes time.  Kanter's contract ends in March, and he says he hopes the next planner will be able to offer the committee guidance to move the process forward quickly, but thoroughly.

"I think we were hoping it would be done by the end of this year, 2013," he says. "That obviously hasn't happened, partly because I'm the main coordinator working with the committee.  The Town asked me to do many other things that took my attention away from the Comprehensive Plan update.  That's partly why we're just not there yet.  I would hope that the target date for having the update wrapped up and a draft plan prepared and adopted would be by the end of 2014.  The sooner the better, because the longer it drags on, the less interest there might be, and momentum."

Some people have argued that projects like a town center or sewer or a proposal to create a state forest in northwest Lansing should wait for the Comprehensive Plan update to be completed so it can drive the direction, if any, of a town center.  But the update is just that: an update.  The Town already has a Comprehensive Plan in place that was last updated only seven years ago.  Kanter says that movement should not be brought to a halt just because an update is in progress.

"I strongly agree with that point of view," Kanter says.  "It's a little of both.  The Town Board sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP) early this year.  We got two responses back, so combined we have four separate proposals for the town-owned land."

Those proposals could make a town center a reality sooner if the town government wants to go ahead with them.  It's not as if the work of the Update Committee is being done in a vacuum.  The Town Board certainly has a sense of where the Town wants to be going.

Kanter also says that the plan provides an opportunity for the Town Board to bring together the fractured community.  Despite what are perceived as major the survey has proven there are many areas where people largely agree.

"People want to see trails and pathways added to the Town even if it means spending some taxpayer money," he says.  "There was quite a bit of support for having small scale businesses, mixed housing and a convenient central location inb the town center.  There is quite a bit of support for moderate income housing in the Town.   I think people realize it is becoming much rarer for people to be able afford to live here.  That's where the Town needs to come together and focus attention -- not on the negatives and the splits and the perceived differences and the political aspects of things -- and get together and use the Comprehensive Plan to bring the Town back together and start moving ahead into the future."

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