postheadericon Sewer Committee Members Look Back

sewermanhole120The Lansing Sewer Committee met for the last time Wednesday to summarize the now defunct $10.8 million town-wide municipal sewer project.  Councilwoman Katrina Binkewicz moderated the meeting to get input from each committee member.  Committee members shared ideas about what might have resulted in a different outcome, a schism between North and South Lansing, and ambiguous Town Board leadership, and looked a bit into the future to predict how sewer will eventually come to the town.

"I don't think it's too late," said Noel Desch.  Desch was Town of Ithaca Supervisor at the time when that town instituted town-wide municipal sewer.  He argued for 12-A sewer (a sewer district paid for by those property owners within the service area) even when the rest of the committee members argued that a 12-A sewer would be too expensive with annual costs per EDU (Equivalent Dwelling Unit) in the range of $800.  "I think the mistake we made was not getting out to the people who need sewer and saying 'here's what it's going to cost.  How do you feel about it?'"

A perceived split between old Lansing in the north and new Lansing in the south was thought to be a factor in the project's failure to come to a vote.  Many people in the southern part of the town have Ithaca zip codes and feel more a part of Ithaca than the town.  Those in the rural north of town tend to be the latest of generations of their families who have lived in the town, some for over 200 years.

"You have people in the south who are not really invested in the town and what's happening in the community," said Andy Sciarabba.  "They can afford taxes going up.  They're not vocal.  They don't get involved in various issues.  Then you have the group from the North, basically the old town group that grew up here, went to school here.  They don't want to see the town change.  They don't believe what you tell them.  They're anti-development.  Anything on a town-wide basis will never fly."

Most committee members agreed a schism has opened in the town roughly between North and South Lansing.  Some said that a larger committee that included some North Lansing residents might have been preferable.

"I see the future is that South Lansing probably will force that issue of providing municipal sewer," said CJ DelVecchio.  "But North Lansing will never do that -- I don't see it ever happening."

Desch said sewer would be forced onto the town by residents who are desperate to get it.

"You're going to get a large area of the Town of Lansing sewered under 12-A," Desch said.  "By the end of that 20 year period you're going to have those 12-A districts transferred to a 12-C because you're going to have additional areas of the town that see the benefit of it and will become participants.  And they'll vote for it.  But right now there's no way, if you went to a vote on 12-C, that you'd get the vote."

Andy Sciarabba disagreed.  He said he doesn't envision sewer districts popping up around town because of the high cost.  He said that a town-wide sewer was only proposed after it became clear that a self-contained sewer district in which only property-owners within the district would pay was too expensive. 

Committee members largely agreed that communication was a problem.  CJ DelVecchio said it would have been worth it to hire professional communications expert to better communicate the benefits of the project.  She lamented the large volume of misinformation that spread around the town, blaming it for what she called Lansing's overwhelming status quo.  Councilwoman Ruth Hopkins said that it also would have been valuable to have a professional planner who would chair the committee and lead the process.

"We tried to do a very large project without a professional planner on staff," she said.  "I don't think you can do it.  We need the continuity of the same planner, someone with professional training, someone who could have carried this committee and helped facilitate the meetings and the notes and the outreach and the marketing.  That's who does it."

Dale Baker also said that opening the meetings to the public hurt the project because the committee couldn't kick around ideas in private that might or might not end up in the final project without the public thinking interim thoughts were an actual project.  Town Attorney Guy Krogh said that town committee meetings are not required to be open.

"Lots of committees in lots of different towns have found that being open to the public has caused them to fail," Krogh said.

Baker expressed concern that residents in South Lansing who want sewer may push to become part of the Village of Lansing, which has a village-wide sewer system.  He also said with no firm plan for the town center land there was confusion about what would go there and why.  He noted that the committee really never learned how a vote would have turned out because anti-sewer residents were so outspoken.

"We don't know how large the pro-sewer group was, because they weren't vocal," said Baker. 

Committee members agreed that the process seemed rushed, noting that elements like the Lansing Central School District's failing septic systems and the NYS juvenile detention facility being pressured by the state to replace its package plant gave a sense of urgency to the project that may have made some people feel the project was being forced on townspeople.  Ironically a $2.537 million state grant that would have covered nearly a quarter of the project cost also put pressure on the project because it could be revoked by the State if a project didn't materialize expediently.

Desch continued to predict that sewer will come, but it will be citizen-driven rather than town-driven.

"I don't think it's over," said Desch.  "You have a lot of property owners that need sewer.  The people who need sewer should petition the Town for a 12-A election.  They can do that.  if you put the petition together and get property owners in specific areas to submit it, the Town Board has no choice but to hold an election to provide sewer to those areas.  If you get that vote with a petition you're going to make it whether it's 800 or less, because those people are going to spend a lot more than $800 per year on the systems they have to put in."

Sciarabba saw a different vision in which private parties put in their own sewer systems where needed in the town.

"Anything on a town-wide basis is never going to fly," he said.  "I think we ought to encourage private systems.  Put in a septic system.  Put in a package plant.  Sell the (town center land) across the street (from the town ballfields).  Let them do those things.  Because we still need the tax base and we still need basic services."

Committee members felt there was no clear direction set by the Town Board, and despite some board members attending meetings the board as a whole never set a clear agenda or rallied to support a project.  Sciarabba, who chairs the Lansing Economic Development Committee, said he is experiencing the same syndrome on a committee with no clear mission.  That committee was able to establish a business incentive zone with the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), but since then there have been no businesses to be incentivized, in large part because of ambiguity about what the town wants in a town center and a wait-and-see attitude about sewer.

Binkewicz thanked the members for more than a year and a half of volunteer service.  The committee was officially dissolved at the August Town Board meeting.

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