Kingdom Farm Sale Could Reshape Lansing

The Lansing Star, Michigan/May 18, 2007
By Dan Veaner

When Shakespeare wrote those lines nearly 400 years ago he could have been talking about a planning board meeting where dreams of the future appear to local residents. Lansing's Planning Board considered such dreams Monday when representatives of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society came to talk about possible futures for Kingdom Farm. Kingdom farm encompasses more than 500 acres between Peruville and Buck Roads. Most of the land in on the eastern side of Auburn Road (Route 34), across the street from the State youth incarceration facilities. The Society engaged Clough Harbour & Associates to come up with ways they could dispose of the land in ways that would be beneficial to themselves as well as the Town. After studying existing zoning and the Town's comprehensive long range plan they came up with scenarios as to how development might occur.

The topography of the property divides it roughly in half with the southern portion close to what Town officials envision as the 'Town Center,' and the northern part touching agricultural lands the Town hopes to preserve. The Society hopes the zoning can change from Rural Agricultural to a tiered plan that would allow for denser growth on the southern part (B-2) and a more sprawling residential area (R-2) in the north. A small parcel on Bower Road would be zoned for residential/mixed use to conform with surrounding areas.

"We looked at your B1 business zone," Clough Harbor's Nicholas Schwartz told the Planning Board. "The Town has done a marvelous job of embracing rural zoning that is envisioned by the step-down growth around the central business core."

'Step-down growth' would mean large single family lots in the north section, with a combination of smaller homes, apartments and businesses in the southern part. In two potential scenarios Schwartz envisioned office and retail space in the southern-most portions of the property with a possible retirement community and apartments in the southeast part. Development is shown 'stepping up' to apartments directly across the road from the Gossett Center and 20,000 square foot single family lots to the east.

Most of the northern half is reserved for larger two to eight lots, again stepping up toward rural zoning. With a nod to history the area with the farmhouse and barns is shown with enough land for a small farm. "One item that we felt was really important was making certain that the farm lot had enough acreage," Schwartz said. "Even if residential uses were developed around it, it would still maintain some semblance of the rural agricultural past that it has had for the last 100 years."

In the mid to late '90s the Society considered building a community there to print the Jehovah's Witnesses' Watchtower publication that would include residences as well as the printing facilities. At that time they met with residents to explain how they planned to handle the impact of a large new community nestled within the town. They also entered into an agreement with the Town to contribute $1.5 million to a sewer project in exchange for an agreed upon amount of sewer capacity to the property, when the project came to pass. "It's our desire to continue to fulfill that arrangement," said Daniel Rice, representing the Society. "We realize how important that has been to the Town."

But in order to fulfill that agreement Rice noted that the Society must make enough money from the sale to cover the commitment. "What we were trying to do is to find out how might we able to make the property saleable in such a way that we could recapture that investment that we want to make to the Town?" he explained. "We engaged Chough Harbour to help us to see how might we work with the existing ordinances, and how might we take the existing comprehensive plan that was prepared by the Town and use it in such a way that would be mutually beneficial?"

But not everyone shares the same vision of what would be mutually beneficial. Planning Board member Larry Zuidema said that Lansing farmers are looking for more land, and that selling it to them would be a way to preserve the current agricultural use. "Is there any way that your client could allow this to remain in agriculture and still satisfy your client's needs?" Zuidema asked.

This is one of two potential master plans presented at Monday's meeting, showing office and retail/commercial space and apartments and senior housing at the southern-most side (right), single family 20,000 sf lots and apartments further north, and 2-8 acre single family lots in the northern half of the property.

"If someone would like to purchase the farm it's on the table," Schwartz replied. "What we would likely see is more increased development in the southern half and moderate development in the northern half."

"That's how we've used it since 1935," Rice added. "We have always enjoyed using it that way. It's worked well for us. But because of this financial commitment to the sewer district we have to be able to use the value of that."

Board member Tom Ellis questioned the need for rezoning. "Not one of those uses is not allowed in an RA district," he said. "What is the need to rezone this now?" "Land becomes more saleable if the potential buyer knows exactly what is permitted on the land he is buying," explained board member Larry Sharpsteen. "A potential investor looks at the land by assessing the value determined by what's going to be allowed next to it."

But B-2 zoning that Watchtower wants also allows for smaller lots than the current RA designation does. B-2 designates 20,000 sf lots while RA sets a 40,000 sf minimum. More lots means more sales, and more sales means more money. Having the zoning change in place beforehand will make the property more saleable, as well as locking in uses of neighboring lots, providing stability that Sharpsteen says developers want.

Ellis noted that years ago the business park south of the Town Hall never filled in, and that residential development is encroaching on it. "I have a hard time changing the zoning ahead of time before we even know if it's going to go," he said. "Lansing putters along at 33 houses per year average, one or two new businesses a year maybe. You're looking at enough growth and development in that area that would max out Lansing for the next 30 years."

Lansing's Planning Board (left to right) Larry Zuidema, Viola Miller Mullane, David Hatfield, Planning Office Clerk Rachel Jacobsen, Chairperson Nancy Loncto, Attorney Lorraine Moynihan Schmitt, Larry Sharpsteen, Tom Ellis

Building Inspector Lynn Day confirms that. He says that as of January of this year 12 residences are currently under construction and the Code Enforcement office estimates about 30 will be built this year. That is slightly down from the 34 built last year and the 45 to 50 homes built in previous years.

There is no denying that the increased density the plans envision would attract more business and create a Town center. Recently Town officials have been looking at a possible future for the large plot of land the Town owns across the street from the Town Hall and ball fields. With pressure from the County to provide affordable housing, Town officials have imagined developments there that could attract a grocery store, doctor's offices and other businesses. Development there logically ties in with the kind of development Watchtower imagines for Kingdom Farm.

Even with the need for affordable housing in Tompkins County, adding 500+ residences to a town the size of Lansing would have a significant impact. On the plus side it would attract business and create a true center to the Town. On the minus side it could overburden the schools if it comes too fast, and increased traffic would be of concern. Yet many in Lansing feel that growth is inevitable, with or without sewer, with or without rezoning. Proponents of planning say that sewer and rezoning together will allow the Town to shape the future, as opposed to the future reshaping the Town.

The future of Kingdom Farm is certainly linked with that of the Town. Schwartz said that he was presenting the proposed zoning changes now to get the board's input, both positive and negative. The plans presented were clearly labeled "Potential Use" and while Watchtower clearly has specific goals for disposing of the property they also appear to want to work with the community. "It is going to be for sale with or without the rezoning," he told the board.

"This is a very valuable piece of land," Zuidema said. "It's a valuable resource for your client, it's a valuable resource for Lansing, and for New York State as well." At this point Kingdom Farm is such stuff as dreams are made on. It remains to be seen which dreams will come true.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.