- By Dan Veaner
After what amounted to a 90 minute argument the Village of Lansing Planning Board voted that a new design for the Lansing Meadows senior rental housing project constitutes a major change to the Planned Development Area (PDA) that made building the residences a condition of constructing the BJ's Wholesale Club building in 2011. A clearly frustrated planning board made it clear they would fight the current plan to build two apartment buildings on a small portion of the property, saying that it is nothing like the original plan they agreed to as a condition of building the commercial portion of the PDA.
"The concept that you originally sold the Planning Board on was that the residential component with wetland mitigation and a bird sanctuary -- I don't see any of that," Code Enforcement/Zoning Officer Adam Robbs. "I see a 12 unit complex on the west end and a pathway that runs from the west to the east end towards the commercial section. There's nothing else. The concept was an an entire community. Now there's no community. Now there's basically an apartment complex. The expectation was the entirety of the property would be built on. That's the part that's missing."
Eight years ago when the project was proposed it seemed like a deal in which everybody stood to win. The developer would get BJ's. The Village would get 12 cottage-style rental units, a bird sanctuary, trees, and a bird sanctuary that would help create a gradual transition from commercial to residential areas of the Village. Negotiations began in 2010, the agreement was made between developer Eric Goetzmann and the Village Planning Board in 2011, and Goetzmann also negotiated a PILOT Increment Funding (PIF) agreement with the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), qualifying his Arrowhead Ventures to receive up to $2.3 million in Recovery Zone Exempt Facility Bonds for the project and Payment-In-Lieu-Of-Tax (PILOT) financing agreement that would support debt service on qualifying project costs.
BJ's opened early in 2012, but Lansing Meadows is still an empty field. During several years it took to relocate wetlands and negotiate with the Army Corps of Engineers as wetlands rules changed, Goetzmann asked the Planning Board for changes to the PDA, including a change that allowed the construction of BJ's gas station, re-rezoning about 20% of the residential property back to commercial use for a coffee shop or similar amenity that seniors could walk to from their apartments. various adjustments to the cottage-style units were agreed to. Over time some of the tree plan and the bird sanctuary seemed to fall away, and several changes to the project followed changes to the footprint of buildable property until Goetzmann proposed a three-story, 30 apartment building last June.
At that time he was admonished by the Planning Board that they would not accept the large building, and Goetzmann should think more along the lines of a design proposed for a project on Bomax Road, which they said they think is attractive, so Goetzmann came back a few weeks ago with a similar design that would place two apartment buildings on the west side of the property, each with six approximately 1,500 square foot apartments.
"You made a lot of commitments. It was going to be this wonderful neighborhood, and everybody got so excited. We had hours and hours and meetings and meetings -- 26 meetings in two years. The apartments were supposed to start at the same time as the commercial (BJ's). It didn't happen. There's no bird habitat. There's none of the things that were originally sold to us, which we agreed to do to allow you to build BJ's so we could have something different on that parcel," said Planning Board member Lisa Schleelein.
"To me it's a bait and switch," she added. "How else can I say it? I want the full parcel finished under this PDA as originally intended and proposed."
Goetzmann argued that the 30 apartment three story building he proposed last summer met the requirements of the zoning, but because the Planning Board didn't like it he listened to them and came back with the current proposal. He said he has no intention of developing the rest of the property, but when pressed by Village Attorney Bill Troy, Goetzmann said that he would not agree to make it 'ever-wild' because that would preclude it from being developed in the future.
"No, absolutely not," he said. "Some day that could be built up."
Troy said that Goetzmann should be held to his promise of not building more units on the parcel, but there is no guarantee that some future owner would abide by the promise. Goetzmann said that the original plan that spread 12 units across the whole property is not economically feasible now, and that the current plan fulfills his obligation to build 12 units as specified in the original conditions of the PDA. He also argued that the Planning Board has an obligation to follow the law, which would require them to approve the new plan.
"I've been trying to bring this forward as something that would be acceptable," he said. "I thought bringing more density would work. It obviously hasn't. I went back to build these 12 and get it done, but it doesn't make any sense to put this whole road in, put water along the whole road... the economics doesn't work."
Robbs said that the original intent of building a neighborhood with natural features has disappeared, despite the Planning Board agreeing to a multitude of changes including rezoning the small commercial segment of the property, something none of them were comfortable with at the time.
"The intent of this up until around eight months ago was that the entire property was gong to be developed," he said. "Nobody said no to you when it was the triplexes. Nobody said no to you when it was duplexes. Nobody said no to you when it started out to be single-family. Now you're saying your going to build 12 units but you're only going to utilize a small portion of the property."
Robbs also noted the Village had been contacted by the IDA to say they want to recover funds extended to the project. In a February 8th meeting Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD) Vice President and Director of Economic Development Services Heather McDaniel recommended the IDA send Goetzmann a 'letter of default' on the grounds that nothing has been done to fulfill the terms of the project.
"You've show them many projects that were all of a similar design until a few months back," Robbs said. "Everybody said this would be good, this would be good... and all of a sudden it's totally different. You said you want to see more density, but you're not getting more density -- you're getting the same 12 units boxed into one end of the property."
Two weeks ago Goetzmann said he hoped that the Board would declare the new plan a 'minor change', which would enable him to get the final planning completed and begin construction May 1st. The declaration that it is a 'major change' may delay the project another six months or more.
"We're going to go through the process from the beginning with a public hearing," said Planning Board Chairman Mario Tomei. Tomei added that the next meeting's agenda is full, so the public hearing would likely be delayed for about a month.