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gorgesclassicWhat could be better?  A US Soccer affiliated tournament attracts players and others from across the country, brings tourist dollars to local businesses, including hotels, restaurants and Bed & Breakfasts, and provides quality play and USSF certified referees for local youth to watch.  But the Lansing town government became entangled and tripped over its own laws Wednesday as the Town Board tried to figure out how to allow the Gorges Classic Soccer Tournament to use soccer fields next to the RINK over Labor Day weekend.

"I don't think any of us here disagree that we want to allow this to happen," said Councilman Robert Cree.  "I think we want to figure out how to make it so that next year you don't have to come here and ask... you can just do it."

The tournament is open to teams in Men's Open, Over 30, 40 & 50 divisions.  Organizer Ibe Jonah, a Tompkins County resident, said it has been taking place in Niagara Falls, but he wanted to bring tourism revenue to his home county.  The tournament would take place on the Lansing fields and at one other location in the county, bringing around 450 people from around the United States.  The
Ithaca tournament is scheduled for Labor Day weekend, with a Spring tournament in Niagara Falls in 2016.

All town officials present said they favor allowing the tournament because of the economic benefits, and to support athletic events in the town.  Recreation Director Steve Colt said it would benefit local youth soccer players to be exposed to the tournament players.

"They're like professional players," said Colt.  "It would be a great thing to watch."

The sticking point is that the Town placed restrictions on the fields when it allowed them to be built six years ago.  The very existence of the fields had a rough start, with the application twice denied because of neighbors' objections.

It was finally approved in November of 2009 subject to 11 conditions (see the Star report from 2009) that only allowed the soccer fields themselves, with no facilities of any kind, and an understanding that all games would be played during the day.  Condition #4 is the sticking point for the Gorges Classic tournament.  It reads, "No commercial activity shall be permitted on the site in the use of the fields and facilities shall be restricted to club members and guests only, with such club members, per club rules, being limited to generally soccer players age 18 and under."  That means players in their 30s, 40s and 50s are prohibited from using the fields.

Tournament organizer Ibe Jonah told the board that the Planning Board, at its last meeting, voted unanimously to make an exception for his tournament, and voted to recommend it to the Town Board for approval.  But Town Attorney Guy Krogh said that no recommendation had been forwarded to the Board or to him.  He added that because Lansing had classified the allowed use as a 'club use' a complicated set of rules apply.

"It's been classified as a club use, so it requires site plan review and special permit," he said.  "The question is, what do you have to do with the site plan?  It's not really a change so much as lifting one of the conditions.  It still has to go the the Planning Board for review and a formal recommendation to the Town Board.  We're talking about a formal resolution and approval of some sort, so we're talking about an environmental review.  Since it's a special use permit it is also going to require a county 239 review."

Krogh said the four options, in order or preference, were 1) to classify the fields as a non-commercial park or playground, 2) amend the special use permit and still call it a club, 3) choose not to enforce it because he said the condition prohibiting the use is questionable, and 4) ask for a variance.  He said the last would be very unlikely to succeed in a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing.  He noted that the simplest approach would have been to call the fields a non-commercial playground or park, which is an allowed use in that area of Lansing.  But because the Town chose to consider it a club it is subject to site plan and special permitting.  He said the third option is easy, but not a good precedent for the town to set.

"I'm not comfortable with saying we should encourage our citizens to ignore the rules of site planning and special permitting," Krogh said.  "It's not my call to make, but there is something about that that just doesn't strike me as morally grounded."

Krogh said that he had advised against the age condition at least three times since the issue of allowing the soccer fields was originally raised.

"What you're trying to regulate is land use impacts," he remarked.  "I have not seen anything that scientifically establishes to any reasonable standard that I'm aware of, that a group of 40 year old people playing soccer have a distinctly different impact on land use than a group of 20 year old people playing soccer.  I've never seen anything that suggests that there's a valid land use distinction based on the age of the player."

Cree asked Krogh what it would take to change the classification of the property.  Krogh said it would mean the Town Zoning Officer would have to make a determination.  He explained that once such a determination is made anyone who disagrees with it has the option to appeal to the ZBA.  Krogh said that he thinks the extent to which the fields are restricted is silly, and some board members agreed.  Cree remarked that would be the 'cleanest' option.

Jonah said Niagara Falls has been benefitting from the tournament, and they want him to hold it there.  He said he has discussed the tournament with Tompkins County's chief tourism officer, who is anxious to bring it here.

"It's going to be beneficial to the community," he said.  "And it's just for one weekend.  I don't want to delve into the politics of what happened in the past.  It's just a two day tournament here.  I think it's within the Board's authority to issue that regardless of any other thing that transpired before now."

Cree asked Jonah how soon he needed a determination.  Jonah noted that the teams come from across the United States, so the sooner the better.  Councilman Ed LaVigne suggested raising the matter at a Joint Town and Planning Board meeting scheduled for Monday to attempt to fast-track a 'yes' decision.

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