Well, it’s been only a couple of days since the news of City Council’s shocking sale of a 7 acre parcel of the publicly owned lakefront greenspace, and it’s been the talk of the town, but not in a good way.
Social media has been one outlet used by Genevans to express anger, frustration and disappointment, and to ask questions about how, where, and why this happened. The Finger Lakes Times article was limited in its information, so the Geneva Believer article received a huge amount of traffic relative to what the blog normally sees. As of this writing, the lakefront sale article has tallied over 1,700 views; the number two most-read article on the blog has 291.
From these discussions, as well as from the emails that have been filling up the Geneva Believer inbox, there have come many questions, comments and suggestions, so let’s take a closer look at this ongoing story.
Deal Or No Deal
Many folks have asked, “Isn’t that land worth more than $200,000? It’s lakefront property! Did the developer get it at a discount?”
Well, not exactly. The full-market assessed value for the land in 2016 is $132,000, according to public records. Naturally, assessed value does not always line up with the selling price. And more importantly, there is still the matter of how the sale of property was conducted, and whether or not the property was awarded to a local developer because, evidently, the only place it was advertised was on the City of Geneva website.
There is, however, another factor to be considered with this property that brings into question the one of the stated reasons for the sale.
There’s A New Blog In Town
On September 6, 2016, City Manager Matt Horn launched his blog, 47 Castle Street. Matt posts articles about city affairs approximately two times per week, plus he hosts his very own podcast that hits the airwaves a couple days a week.
In his article “November City Council Preview” from November 2, Matt gives a bit of insight into the upcoming sale of the lakefront property:
“Resolution Authorizing Sale of Property: Waterloo Tract
What it is: The City owns several acres of property adjacent to the Seneca Lake State Park entrance. We have received a proposal from Dave Bunnell of Geneva to acquire the property for redevelopment. He proposes to pay the City $200,000 to acquire the property.
Why it’s important: In many cases, the sale of City property means returning it to the tax roll. In this case, the property is located outside of the City, so no future revenues are possible. That said, this site represents a continued maintenance cost, which will be alleviated by the sale. In addition, the revenue anticipated from the sale is significant.
What action is Council taking: The sale requires a supermajority vote of Council. If approved, the purchaser will have a period to complete due diligence before the sale is finalized.”
So there’s a “continued maintenance cost,” but what does that entail? Utilities? Snowplowing? Property or school taxes?
Nope. When Horn refers to the “continued maintenance cost” of the site, he is talking about lawnmowing. The City has to pay someone to mow the 7 acres of grass.
Lawnmowing the property is the only cost for Geneva taxpayers, as the parcel is currently tax-exempt. The 7-acre plot is classed by the town of Waterloo as a “Picnic site,” which means it is exempt from county, municipal and school taxes.
If the only cost to the City to retain this publicly owned lakefront greenspace is for lawnmowing, what if there was a way to eliminate that lawnmowing cost in a way that will protect and enhance the ecological state of the area?
Perhaps there is.
Nature Is The Best Developer
From page 19 of the Geneva Comprehensive Plan:
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.
The recently-sold parcel is an extremely valuable piece of land from the standpoint of providing a natural habitat for wildlife, including migrating birds, by virtue of its proximity to a wetland site in the adjoining Seneca Lake Park.
The site, shown on the map above, was the subject of a 2010 proposal that aimed to restore what is the most important natural site not only in Seneca Lake Park, but in a wide area around the City of Geneva.
One reason that New York State was ready to swap a strip of land by the lakeside with this parcel was because of its proximity to the natural area. Whether the parcel was left alone to return to its natural state or modified to become part of the current wetland area, it would create a critical natural buffer between busy routes 5&20 and the wetland.
From an ecological and environmentally conscious standpoint, refraining from mowing the site (at a taxpayer cost of $0.00) would be the most logical use for the soon-to-be-developed parcel. The City of Geneva has no natural areas that are comparable to the one located in the State Park (the closest are Kashong Conservation Area and Ontario Pathways, both 5 miles from the city limits). The now-sold parcel provided a golden opportunity for the city to cooperate with the State Park system to create a unique natural area at the edge of the city line, and the cost would have been minimal.
Instead, City Council chose to sell the land to a developer to build vacation cottages.
A Councilor Speaks
I received an email from a City Councilor who voted to approve the sale, and this Councilor provided some reasons for the decision. (I am not identifying the Councilor as I have not received permission to do so). Here were the reasons:
- The City needs the money.
- The parcel is far enough from what is considered ‘lakefront’ that it wouldn’t seem like a violation of an ‘unofficial agreement’ not to develop the area closest to downtown.
- The guests at these vacation rentals will shop, eat, play and spend money in downtown Geneva.
- Selling the parcel will remove any possibility of a land swap with the State Park, which could have resulted in condos or other development along the lakeside.
Responses to these statement might look something like this:
- Yes, the City needs money, but selling lakefront parcels without proper public discussion is absolutely wrong.
- The parcel is still part of the publicly owned greenspace, it is environmentally valuable, and the sale violates the Comprehensive Plan’s statement on transparency.
- No one can predict with certainty whether there’s a robust market for vacationers who want to stay in cottages on a busy highway across the street from a railyard, rather than in a hotel room, bed & breakfast, or Airbnb/share economy location. If the cottages are only partly filled during vacation season, the speculative financial boost for downtown could be minimal.
- Selling a piece of publicly owned lakefront greenspace because you fear that failing to do so will lead to ‘worse’ development is speculative and shows a deep lack of trust in the public to protect the lakefront from future development. It is not your job to ‘save us’ from a future hazard without first conducting a proper public discussion.
Don’t Let ‘Em Off The Hook
By the time you read this article, it’s likely that city officials may already be doing damage control in the media, providing their own reasons for the way this sale was handled. We can be sure they’ve been monitoring social media and this blog so that they may try to formulate responses to the growing number of complaints from the public about the sale.
Readers, I implore you: don’t let them get away with this. The only thing they should be saying right now is “We made a mistake. We should have done this deal more transparently and with more public input. The sale will be stopped, and we will re-submit our proposal and include adequate and meaningful public feedback and participation.”
Finally, don’t just read about it and get angry – let City Council know what you think of this land sale. Click the link below for contact information for the members of City Council.
Thank you for reading, and please check back for more updates soon!