November 26, 2021

Growing pains in Dryden

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

William George Agency co-workers Shatoya Pittman, left, and Linda Rabusin head back to work Friday after having lunch at Pizza and Bones in downtown Dryden..

Jim Skaley has called Varna home for 21 years, because the neighbors made it so good.

“There’s a strong community here,” Skaley said. “You need that. You need people there to say I will do things to make the community better.”

Varna, like the rest of Dryden, is growing — at twice the rate of nearby Ithaca and 40 times faster than Cortland County. The people are coming from Ithaca’s sprawl, as growth there pushes past Lansing, lured by lower-cost housing and a more rural way of life.

Between 2000 and 2016, Dryden’s population grew 10 percent, much faster than Lansing to the west.

Expect Cortlandville to come next. Its population grew 8.1 percent between 2000 and 2016.

If those communities want to preserve or encourage a certain quality of life in a generation, they’ll need to plan now.

Varna is small, just a couple hundred of Dryden’s nearly 15,000 residents. It has a playground, an after-school program at a community center, and a very short commute to downtown Ithaca and all the economic and cultural opportunity there. It works for Skaley.

It’s also cheaper, part of the reason for the migration, said Tompkins County Legislature Chairwoman Martha Robertson (D-Dryden).

“People are motivated to live as close as they can to their work,” Robertson said.

They can be immersed in a very different quality of life. Rural. Quieter. That’s what drew Tony Salerno to eastern Dryden, a rural part of the town, even though he works at Cornell University.

Salerno connects with neighbors at the Dryden Cafe, and he’s joined the Dryden Rotary.

But two major developments have been proposed for Dryden in the past few weeks: a $40 million, 219-unit high-density housing complex that would cater mostly to Cornell University students; and a 124-unit development with assisted-living facility and motel in the heart of the village of Dryden, between Route 38 and Mott Road.

Growth in Dryden isn’t just a someday thing — 20 or 30 years in the future. It’s happening now, and residents and officials agree they need to plan today to keep the best parts of Dryden for the next generation.

The problem is that they don’t always agree on what the best parts are, or how to plan development to preserve that.

Skaley wants to expand on what is already in Varna — more single-family homes and multi-family homes, but not the high-density housing proposed for his neighborhood.

However, that area has sufficient infrastructure — water and sewers — to accommodate medium- to high-density housing that much of the rest of the town lacks, said town Supervisor Jason Leifer. It’s also the part closest and most convenient to Ithaca, where many of these neighbors would work and shop.

Varna, parts of the village of Dryden and areas surrounding it, along with land near Route 13 and Hanshaw Road have sufficient infrastructure to support high-density housing.

Building where the infrastructure exists is something Robertson said the county has been suggesting towns do, to accommodate both the growth and the rural nature of the communities.

“You can build enough housing in sort of the denser part of the county without sprawling into farms,” she said.
Solerno wants to keep the rural space across Dryden.

“I’d like Dryden to retain its rural feel, but on the other hand I recognize development is needed,” he said. He’s also looking to create more homes in the Dryden Central School District to increase enrollment. “Ideally if you have people living here they’ll have kids and their kids will be in the school district and it makes it more viable.”

Solerno is open to various types of housing, both high- and low-density, although he’d like to focus development in eastern Dryden to low-density, single-family homes.

“Do I want to see it change from being rural?” he asked. “No, but I understand the development is needed.”

Solerno isn’t surprised that student housing is proposed for western Dryden; it’s only a couple of miles from Cornell. But having it means the flavor of the community will change.

But it will also draw businesses to serve the residents, whoever those residents are, said Keith Miller. He lives in Poets Landing, a high-density development across Route 38 from Dryden High School. He’d like to see more such housing, including affordable housing for low-income residents particularly around the colleges, including Tompkins Cortland Community College.

He wants to make sure the new neighbors understand the way of life established in the assorted neighborhoods. It gets pretty quiet by 11 p.m. at Poets Landing, where he’s lived for four years. It’s a friendly area where his kids can walk to a neighbor’s home on their own.

“You can’t get people coming here thinking they can live a certain way,” Miller said.

Dryden’s master plan was last updated in 2005, and the zoning in 2012 to accommodate it. Leifer said a new one must come in the next few years. The town plans to hire a consultant next year to start the process.

A study funded by the town and Tompkins County will determine how much extending water and sewer systems on Route 13 near the New York State Electric and Gas Corp. building would cost. Leifer said there is land there that could be a good area for development.

“Dryden has the room,” he said. “We just don’t have the utilities everywhere.”

But the problem isn’t just utilities, it’s resistance, he added.

“Change is just something people don’t generally like, especially if the change proposed isn’t what they expected,” Leifer said.

“We have people in Dryden who say they want the development but they don’t want it next to them,” Salnero said.

But it’s coming, regardless of whether people want it, Robertson said.

“People say, ‘we have all this construction we don’t need anymore,’ but that’s not true,” she said.

Tompkins County needs to add 200 affordable rental units and 380 ownership units each year to meet the growth, Robertson said.

The challenge Dryden faces is this: It’s about finding what zoning works in the area, Salerno said, while — as Leifer pointed out — there’s no knowing whether it works until the development arrives.

“Until things are actually built is when you’ll find if the zoning works,” Leifer said.

It goes beyond zoning, Skaley said. How can future developments build on existing communities without plowing them under?

“There will be more development coming to Varna and what we need is to be an able to guide that so it creates community,” he said.

It will require flexibility, by developers and residents alike, Leifer said, and it means overcoming preconceptions about the new neighbors simply for the housing they live in.

“To assume someone will not integrate themselves in the community because they rent is just wrong,” Leifer said.
People need to think long-term, he said, and big picture: What will improve the whole town?

“We’re looking to do things in the area that make it better, we’re not looking to do things that make it worse,” Leifer said.

“People need to take a really long view of things and not just the next couple of years,” he added. “What works today is not going to likely work in the next 15 years.”