A nebulous public hearing on a proposal to build 140 rental townhouses on Bomax Road remained open-ended last week, stuck in municipal limbo until a court appeal challenging the parcel's zoning is resolved. Developers from Park Grove Realty, LLC were present as opponents of the development challenged the Village of Lansing's handling of the project. Planning Board Chair Mario Tomei said the public hearing had only been opened to consider administrative steps and project details, but that no decisions on permitting the project could go forward until the case is resolved.
"There is still a court appeal pending, so I want everyone to understand that nothing about this special permit will be decided on tonight," Tomei said. "We cannot make a decision on this. We're doing this at the request of the developer to fulfill all the administrative steps and the details associated with any special permit. We will leave the public hearing open. It's going to stay open, even at the end of the meeting."
The conflict began last September when Park Grove Realty requested a change to the zoning of a parcel on Bomax Drive from from Business and Technology use to High Density Residential zoning. Neighboring The Heights Of Lansing Develpment, LLC and IJ Construction II Of Ithaca, LLC owners Janet Jonson and Lisa Bonniwell rallied their neighbors to protest the zoning change, but Village of Lansing Trustees decided to make the change. That infuriated Bonniwell and her neighbors to the point that they formed a political party. Bonniwell challenged Mayor Donald Hartill and two other candidates from her developments ran against incumbent trustees in last April's election. All three incumbents won another term.
Bonniwell has been fighting the new development on several fronts. In addition to her political challenge she and Jonson have attended Village Planning Board and trustee meetings to speak against the development, at times bringing scores of neighbors to support them. They brought a lawsuit against the Village in an effort to reverse the zoning change that make the proposed development possible. She charges that her father Ivar Jonson worked for 30 years with the Village to create major neighborhoods including Lansing Trails and the Janivar Drive neighborhoods, contributing roads and infrastructure to the Village, but that the current mayor and board of trustees has refused to listen.
"Here's this project that's as big as our project that we worked on with you for 30 years," she said. "We've been working with you, putting in infrastructure for 30 years, and we're still on Phase 2, and do you know how many permits in Phase 2 we've been given to build? Two. All this infrastructure this next development is just going to tap into. I've been frustrated. Our community has been here, but whether you heard us, you didn't listen. Whether you cared, we didn't see it."
Nevertheless, her company's lawsuit failed in the State of New York Supreme Court (Tompkins County) when justice Eugene D. Faughnan ruled that the zoning change had been made legally. The lawsuit charged the Village was guilty of spot zoning, that the rezoning was inconsistent with the newly approved Comprehensive Plan, and that the Jonsons' company would be harmed by the Park Grove development.
In his ruling Faughnan wrote, "Petitioners argue that The Heights of Lansing Development, LLC is harmed in light of expenditures it was required to make while developing its own project. However, it is unclear how this bears on this zoning determination. Further, the Village, through its SEQRA evaluation, found any negative impacts minimal and speculative. Petitioners' concerns may be more properly addressed if and when an actual development plan is submitted for approval."
The Bonniwell and Jonson has appealed the decision. Until it is appealed there is not much the Planning board can do to move the project forward. Village Attorney David Dubow noted that the developers have the right to go forward with the Planning Board process with the understanding that a potential reversal of Faughnan's ruling would end the project, at least on that parcel.
During the zoning determination Hartill insisted the zoning change consideration was a separate matter from the proposed project itself, even though the zoning change had been requested by the developers. Legally that determination is separate from consideration of a specific project. Village officials argued rezoning would help the whole village because it would help bring needed housing to the county and tax revenues to the Village, Town, and County. Hartill noted the market for business properties in the area had flattened. But opponents to the project weren't buying it.
"We are in court at the moment challenging the rezoning," said attorney Khandikile Sokonie, representing the Jonsons at last week's Planning Board meeting. "The Board of Trustees insisted for the longest time that this rezoning had nothing to do with this project. But clearly it had everything to do with this project."
Sokonie asked for clarification on exactly where Village officials are in the process, and challenged the municipality's handling of environmental review. She said she was still reviewing documents she had requested of the Village, but said that the 'short form' SEQR (environmental review) was inadequate. Heights of Lansing Project Engineer Larry Fabroni said that a long form SEQR is required because state law requires it when "anything that's immediately adjacent to a town open space or park that's more than 62 1/2 units should be considered a Type 1 action."
Fabroni and Bonniwell also listed several infrastructure requirements the Village had made of Jonson, saying the Village was inconsistent in what it requires of developers.
"All this infrastructure that he had to build and this developer comes in here and doesn't build one stick of infrastructure, and, in fact, benefits by what (Jonson) did on Bomax Drive in particular. Maybe you should ask them to develop the park you want to develop south of here. Who is going to spend the money and make that something that is worthwhile to the Village."
Developers answered questions for Planning board members about minor changes in their plan. Tomei stressed again that the Board could take no action until the court appeal is resolved. Planning Board member Deborah Dawson said no actions are being taken outside the public view, and that the lawsuit is the only reason the process has been held up. The public hearing was left open and is expected to resume at future Planning board meetings.
The court has given the petitioners until September 5th to submit a final draft of their appeal.