Surprise! While nobody was looking, Geneva City Council pulled a fast one and sold off a piece of public greenspace on the lakefront.
Thousands of Geneva residents were startled by the Finger Lakes Times headline on Friday, November 4th declaring: “Geneva City Council OKs Lakefront Land Sale.” After more than a year of Comprehensive Plan meetings which concluded that the Lakefront is one of the city’s most valuable public resources for its residents across social, racial and economic lines, City Council approved (by a 6-3 vote) to sell a 7-acre plot to local developer Bunnell Associates (headed by Geneva businessman and BID board member Dave Bunnell) for a sum of $200,000. The land will be developed with 14 new seasonal vacation cottages.
It turns out that the City had been planning this for months. Apparently, they had decided to sell the property and posted it for sale, quietly, on the City of Geneva website earlier in the summer. Then, to fulfill their legal obligation to provide a public hearing prior to the sale, the City added a public hearing to their July City Council meeting agenda (naming the agenda item “PUBLIC HEARING – SALE OF CITY PROPERTY”). No one from the public offered a comment, likely because no one actually knew that the “city property” was part of the publicly-owned greenspace on the lakefront. Finally, at the November 2nd City Council meeting, the sale was approved, but this time it was listed on the evening’s agenda as “Town of Waterloo Tract” and it wasn’t until Friday’s newspaper hit the stands that the majority of the public actually realized what had just happened.
When the City was heavily marketing their “Exchange South/Blackwell” development project downtown from 2012-2016, they created an interactive and detailed website, conducted public interviews and did their best to make the world aware that they selling public land in the downtown district for new development.
This time around, one temporary notice on the City’s website calling for bids was posted. It would certainly appear that the City didn’t really want the public to know much about the pending sale, and when the buyer ends up being someone who sits on the board of directors (alongside City Manager Matt Horn) for a tax-collecting not-for-profit that is additionally funded by city taxpayer dollars, it raises even more questions.
For years, proponents of lakefront development have claimed that the property taxes collected from new buildings on the lakefront would make the loss of greenspace a worthwhile trade-off. However, with this sale, the City won’t see one thin dime of taxes, thanks to the parcel being located in the town of Waterloo, outside the city limits.
Comprehensive Plan, Shmomprehensive Plan
From page 19 of the City’s Comprehensive Plan, Geneva’s guidebook for the next 15 years of planning that was crafted by the people who live here:
WE WILL NOT: Take any actions that fail to both protect and enhance the ecological state of Seneca Lake while also improving accessibility and attractiveness of lakefront amenities for residents and visitors.
Some Genevans may not realize that our grassy, walkable, tree-dotted lakefront was not always so inviting, especially in the previous century. The lakefront was home to multiple industries, factories, and good old fashioned garbage dumps. In order to create the lakefront and Seneca Lake State Park, an incredible amount of land-moving equipment, fill and topsoil was needed to bury the filth that was there. The idea of 14 new cottages, with water, sewer, electric, and storm drainage being installed, potentially displacing toxins that are possibly under the surface, presents a very real environmental concern.
Just because the property is in the town of Waterloo, that doesn’t mean any environmental blowback is not Geneva’s problem. We drink the water of Seneca Lake. We rely on recreation, fishing, and tourism. We are (likely) spending millions of dollars to “connect” the lakefront with downtown. If the lake goes, Geneva goes. If this land sale and development causes harm to the water and brings us one day closer to a dead lake, our $200,000 payday will be meaningless.
It’s not known whether any in-depth environmental impact studies have been done on the newly-sold parcel, but I hope the Town of Waterloo is paying attention and makes certain that Seneca Lake is not threatened.
A Discomforting Precedent
The parcel that was sold may seem like the “most reasonable” parcel to develop out of the 60+ acre publicly-owned lakefront greenspace. It’s located on the west side of the Seneca Lake State Park entrance, does not impede the view of the lake, and is essentially ‘separate’ from the rest of the publicly-owned lakefront greenspace.
The above image shows the approximate locations of two parcels. Back in 2011, City Council approved a land swap with New York State, in which those two parcels (considered one parcel at the time) would be given to the State Park in exchange for a piece of State Park land along the water’s edge. The deal fell through, and the City decided to simply move forward with selling a chunk of the property instead.
This is apparently the first parcel of public land to be sold to a developer since the Ramada was built in 1997. For around two decades, the City has resisted the temptation to sell off our invaluable public greenspace, even though some Councilors and high-property-tax-weary residents over the years have pushed for it.
Now that this parcel has been sold, it’s entirely plausible that the next parcel to be put on the market will be the one east of the park entrance. Once the infrastructure is in place for the 14 vacation rentals, the parcel next door will become significantly more appealing to developers. And it will be easier for proponents to say, “hey, it’s not technically the lakefront, and that area is already developed anyway.”
But this as-yet-unsold parcel is an important part of Geneva’s lakefront, as there is a small parking area there on the west side of Park Road, not far from the park cashier. Every summer, hundreds of low-income residents meet up at this lot and carpool into the park in order to save on the $7 per carload entry cost. One of the primary motivations for the state to make the land swap in 2011 was to remove this parking area. Now that there’s a real possibility that the land could be sold, there’s also the possibility that economically disadvantaged Genevans will be prevented from enjoying the only public swimming beach available in the hot, sticky summer months…because they simply can’t afford it.
I certainly would hope that with part of the City’s Comprehensive Plan being “Equitable” that Council won’t try to sell a parcel that holds such importance for our economically disadvantaged neighbors.
On The Bright Side
It’s hard to find a bright side.
A City Council and City Manager who publicly claim transparency and public engagement to be important parts of everyday governance just completed a sale of public greenspace that, if the public had been reasonably informed (and not just informed-enough-to-be-legal), would have garnered a huge amount of attention and debate.
Instead, we’re now forced to ask the big questions and consider the potential negative outcomes after the fact.
And who’s to say that someone wouldn’t have come up with a great idea for that piece of land that would keep it open and accessible to the public? At this point, we’ll never know.
Rather than risk missing out on that big-time, one-time jackpot of $200 grand, the City chose to do the deal quickly and quietly. Not one City Councilor, with the exception of Ward 1’s Angelina Marino who discussed the matter with some of her constituents, informed the media or the public that the sale was pending. This is inexcusable.
So if there is a bright side, it’s that we have now seen that our elected officials, no matter how much they talked about ‘transparency’ and ‘protecting the lakefront’ and whatever other niceties they could muster during 2015’s election season, will, when they deem it appropriate, make controversial deals while not caring whether or not the public is kept in the dark.
Let’s keep a better eye on them from now on, shall we?
We all know the State of New York is watching closely to see that the $10,000,000 Downtown Revitalization Grant is allocated without any ethically questionable tactics or negative public response. Our City officials need to be careful in the coming weeks that they don’t draw any more attention in terms of how they decide public land is utilized and public money is handled, like they have with this public lakefront greenspace sale debacle.
Oh, and the other bright side? The three Councilors who voted against the sale: Ward 1 Councilor Angela Marino, Ward 3 Councilor Steve Valentino and Ward 6 Councilor John Greco. They deserve our applause on this one, folks.