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DOT Needs FAA Approval

Four homeowners at the top of Hillcrest Road are outraged at the relocation of a New York State Department Of Transportation (NYSDOT) maintenance facility that surrounds one of their homes, and that they say will impact all with noise, traffic, and potential consequences to their well water.  They say they have been shut out of consideration of the choice of land, that they were not notified about public meetings where the land sale was considered, and that the new facility will negatively impact their property values and quality of life.  While they cling to the thread of a hope that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) will not approve the sale of the Land from Tompkins County to NYSDOT, to all appearances the federal agency will approve it... and that will make the location a 'done deal'.

"They're looking at it from an FAA point of view, primarily from a safety point of view," says Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport Manager Mike Hall.  "Planes, airspace... there's a lot of talk about the RPZ (Runway Protection Zone), but that's just the surface plane.  There are other planes above that that provide a valley for the arriving aircraft to fly down as they get to the airport."

When the FAA was declared the lead agency it took jurisdiction away from the Town of Lansing.  While Town officials have expressed their dismay at the choice of land so close to its residents, there is little it can actually do to impact the decision.  Town officials intend to submit comments from the Town and Planning Boards before the February 2 public comment deadline, but such comments, while they are supposed to be considered by NYSDOT, have no authority over what NYSDOT eventually does.

The only jurisdiction remaining to the Town is utilities.  NYSDOT has requested that the Warren Road Sewer District, which extends to a portion of the 15 acre plot they intend to build the maintenance facility on, but not all.  If the Town denies the request NYSDOT will have to build a septic system.  And extending sewer service to the facility has an impact on the sewer capacity allotted to the Town by the Village of Cayuga Heights, which owns the sewage treatment plant Town and Village of Lansing sewers use.

"I have stated this repeatedly that we are the third municipality that you contact about sewer," says Lansing Town Supervisor Ed LaVigne. "The first two are our partners, the Village of Cayuga Heights and the Village of Lansing.  For the record, I don't feel comfortable moving forward unless the villages are comfortable first.  I have said you need to reach out to them first to discuss the issues with them, then get back to the Town of Lansing. Whether they do this or not, that is up to the DOT."

LaVigne says comments will urge greater buffering between the facility and residences that may include construction of a higher berm than the eight feet proposed, and more year-round foliage.  He says moving the DOT's fuel facility to the airport side of Warren Road will also help mitigate neighbors' concerns about ground water contamination.  While there has been no official agreement as yet, Hall says NYSDOT has unofficially reacted favorably to the idea of a shared fueling facility that is already in the works for County use, including the airport.

"One of the things is I'm asking for is input from the Planning Board and the Town Board.  I'm asking the Planning Board  to treat this as a site plan review, even though we really don't have jurisdiction for site plan review enforcement.  It's to sensitize and bring up in a respectful manner the recommendations that one would give for buffering, and that sort of thing.  Since no earth has been broken yet, can you move this facility to the south a little bit, as a buffer?"

The current fuel facility, where gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel is stored and distributed, is located near the East Hill Flying Club.  Hall wants a new facility moved behind the Tompkins County Sheriff's office, which is not only a safer location, but would allow other County agencies to fuel their vehicles on the other side of the fence from the airport, while still servicing airport fuel trucks.  Hall says that it will be a County shared services facility that would be enhanced by sharing it with NYSDOT as well.

"Therein lies the rub," Hall says.  "We applied under the New York State Airport Improvement annual competition, to move that fuel farm.  The reasons is the fuel trucks go there to refuel, and the airplanes from East Hill Flying Club taxi in and out. So you have student pilots and fuel trucks mixing, and that's not a good thing.  We haven't had any accidents.  We might never have any accidents.  But if you were designing it you would never design it this way."

"We do this on a much smaller scale in the Town," LaVigne says. "The Town has its fuel storage at the Highway Department. We also make it available to the school vehicles and the fire companies, which they reimburse us for. So there is already a shared service there, one site, as opposed to having three sites."

The property is the northern-most 15 acres on a 54 acre lot owned by the Airport, which is owned by Tompkins County.  Residents and Town representatives have challenged the choice of that northern portion when land in the middle or southern portion would not impact residential neighborhoods at all.  But Hall says there are many factors that impacted the choice.

"I was quoted at the public hearing as saying 'it's complicated'," he says. "That was not an accurate quote, but it is accurate.  There are a lot of factors that go into this kind of a decision, including highway access, soil, the airspace.. I guess you would have to say that yes, lots of things were considered, but the property that had been studied that was eligible to be developed by the airport is that 54 acre parcel.  Originally there was consideration of developing that land as a business park or something.  The plot is really ideal as a transportation park for development."

Hall says the County originally purchased the land to prevent housing from being built near the end of the runway, where noise and safety concerns would impact homeowners.  He says the FAA expects airports to develop such land appropriately, for light industry or commercial businesses like the 'you-store' facility that is on the corner of Hillcrest and Warren Roads.

As residents wait for the FAA to make its determination, the prospect of getting the location moved seems to be receding.  The Town's only leverage is the sewer, but that would not be a deal breaker in terms of actually building the facility.  What it will come down to is good will, and NYSDOT's willingness to be a considerate neighbor.

So far the agency has shown some tendency to do that.  NYSDOT representatives paid courtesy visits to both the Town and Planning Boards to apprise them of project plans, even though town officials don't have jurisdiction over the project that is within Lansing boundaries.  To all appearances NYSDOT looks favorably at the prospect of sharing a fuel facility with Tompkins County.  That is not a 'done deal' but it would be a step toward somewhat placating the neighbors while saving the expense and additional environmental impacts two fueling facilities would bring.  Even if the maintenance facility location is written in stone, additional buffering is still a possibility.

Those things do not assuage neighbor concerns, but they do chip away at them somewhat. The bottom line seems to be that if the FAA approves the sale, it will be made final.

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