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Fears of contamination delay Ithaca plan for more mobile homes


A photo taken by environmental watchdog Walter Hang showed a crushed 55-gallon drum and other "industrial artifacts" on a site where the city wanted to increase housing, Hang says.

ITHACA, N.Y. — Fears of toxic contamination have led City Hall to table a proposal that would allow additional mobile homes to be built on a strip of land on the southwest of Ithaca.

Last week, Ithaca's Common Council was slated to vote to remove a "setback requirement" to give developers the ability to build more mobile homes by Nate's Floral Estates, on Cecil Malone Drive.

That vote was delayed after Common Council member Cynthia Brock and Walter Hang, of the Ithaca-based environmental firm Toxics Targeting, raised concerns about the history of reported environmental contamination at the site.

Their criticism of the city was buttressed Wednesday night at City Hall by Rich DePaolo, a member of the Town of Ithaca's planning committee, who also expressed worries that the location — the site of a former landfill — was not safe for residents.

"We're opening the door to allow our least privileged citizens to live in the most contaminated areas," DePaolo said. "We have an obligation to provide affordable housing, but we also have an obligation to put it in the right place."

Another photo of the planned site for expanding Nate's Floral Estates (Provided by Hang)

On Wednesday night, the city's Planning and Economic Development Committee agreed to table the issue — and discussion over it — for now.

"Very little was done on Nate's," said JoAnn Cornish, the city's director of Planning and Economic Development. "I have very little information and I need all of it verified."

"It seems there has been some requests over the years for some investigation ... we're going to wait to hear from the health department, they've been very willing to help us. ... I think we really need to collect our thoughts."

Brock, who worked to ensure that city officials look more carefully at the potential risks of the site, said she hopes the addition scrutiny will lead to better safeguards for area residents' safety.

"If anything, the good thing that will come out of this will be a closer examination" of the site, Brock said.

"... Perhaps we can do that now to ensure these concerns are being addressed in a way that is protective of the residents."

To which Cornish added, briefly: "Without displacing them." Brock responded to that as well. "We definitely want to protect them," she said.

City official on backstory of Nate's Floral Estates

Nels Bohn, director of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, said an adjoining site had been evaluated by the Tompkins County Department of Health.

"So far, none of the data has suggested that any of the residents are being exposed to toxic chemicals that would imperil their safety," Bohn says.

Bohn cited a history of extensive correspondence between the property owners and the DOH that he said did not give conclusive evidence of whether it was OK to build on the site or not.

"What's not clear from the correspondence is, 'Was DOH concerned with us tripling the size of the mobile home park, or with us adding one more line?,'" Bohn said, noting that the planned expansion is relatively small in scope.

"There was certainly a concern about the expansion of the mobile home park boundaries to the south."

Bohn acknowledged that there was evidence of "heavy metals and volatile organic compounds — not necessarily under Nate's, but at the landfill next to it." But he also cautioned against assuming that meant the site's expansion should be permanently killed.

"The question that needs to be asked is: 'How does it create health and safety problems for the people who live there?,'" he said. "I think a correct approach is to ask the Department of Health to review the materials and make an informed decision."

Hang, of Toxics Targeting, went further than Bohn. Criticizing the city for allowing the expansion to coming close to being implemented, he said the site was "totally unfit for human habitation."

"This site is the only abandoned municipal garbage dump in New York State where people live directly on top of the fill," Hang said in an email.

"It is appalling that the City of Ithaca has tolerated this travesty of environmental justice for 15 years and allowed the site to be redeveloped for big box retail activities."