Friday, December 10, 2010

Scofflaw Developers

The question of the day is: Should someone who's notoriously delinquent in paying property taxes be allowed to continue building developments? If, for the town, it's all about expanding the property tax base, yet the developer is regularly on the list of nonpayers or late payers, how is it a benefit to the town for the developer to continue building?

Whereas some local developers seem to make plans and build structures without the slightest flap, the Lucentes always seem to be in the paper. Either they're building on wetlands and fighting with the Town of Ithaca, or they're ignoring zoning restrictions and appearing before the Dryden ZBA. When I was 6, my family lived in Lucente Land, in the northeast Ithaca development my mother aptly christened "Tobacco Road" (Rocco Lucente named the streets after cigarettes, since the existing street, Muriel, reminded him of the cigar, despite being named for an earlier developer's daughter). When I was 9, we left and never looked back.

Rocco's still in the biz in Ithaca. His sons Christopher (for whom Christopher Circle is named) and Stephen are in the biz, too. Stephen often develops under his wife's name, perhaps to derive tax breaks for female-owned businesses. Now they are up against residents of the hamlet of Varna, waiting for a break from the ZBA. With all that they own, the Lucentes are not on the list of top ten taxpayers in Tompkins County. Could that be because they're always a skip away from foreclosure? There oughta be a law. Oh, yeah, there is one.


Mary Ann Sumner said...

This doesn’t sound like your usual thoughtful writing. One ZBA member’s concern with overdue taxes in a meeting four years ago doesn’t equate with “notoriously delinquent.” It’s worth noting that at that meeting the ZBA unanimously found that the project under review “will bring desirable changes to the character of the neighborhood and will benefit near by properties.” The function of the ZBA is to review requests for variances to zoning regulations. Appearing before the ZBA is the opposite of “ignoring zoning regulations.”

It’s not “all about expanding the property tax base.” It’s also about improving housing, creating commercial opportunities, revitalizing the community. Varna residents are understandably concerned with changes to the community. But ad hominem attacks like this don’t advance the conversation. I’d rather talk about how this, or any, project might bring local service businesses back to Varna, renew or replace deteriorating housing stock, address traffic safety concerns and contribute to the community pride so prevalent in Varna.

KAZ said...

Sorry, but Paul brought this up four years ago at ZBA because he was tired of seeing the same names over and over again on the newspaper's list of late payments and thought there should be some form of retribution from the town. The way things stand, it has benefited large developers like the Lucentes to withhold taxes, because the fines are less than the interest on their withheld monies. (Now that interest rates are so low, this may no longer be true.) If the town doesn't mind because their late property tax costs are picked up by the county, so be it, but I pay my taxes on time, and so should the Lucentes.

I think our ZBA is rather frequently used to bypass regs, which is perhaps not the same thing as ignoring them. Heck, we couldn't live where we do without having gone before the ZBA for a variance. But if every single request is granted (and maybe I'm wrong in thinking that is still the case four years later), what kind of regulatory power is being wielded? Why have a ZBA? Why have regs at all? The town bailed out Observatory Circle via the ZBA. Should the function of that body really be to protect developers from their own mistakes?

That being said, I admit to being strongly biased against a handful of developers and landlords in this region. Frankly, I'd rather insert a few big box businesses along the Route 13 corridor than make deals with some of these local characters. But that's just me.

Simon said...

There are a lot of pieces here to untangle, even beyond the tax question.

First of all, it matters tremendously who the "hominem" is behind a given development. The future of a development isn't determined by location and design - there are thousands of decisions that affect how it goes, many of them after the Town gives its final approval. Construction, maintenance, management, financial stability, and lots of other factors will show through for better or worse.

I also find the ZBA minutes that Kathy pointed to compelling, though not only for the tax question. Yes, Lucente came before the ZBA instead of just striking off to do whatever he wanted - but all of this was after the buildings were up. It's not advance planning, it's a late-course correction on a development that was failing badly - in ZBA-speak, "self-created".

Lucente created a development that didn't sell, at a time when planners were insisting that the area needed more housing. Fortunately it was a small development, without major impacts on the surrounding area, but it's very difficult to call this an experience that adds confidence in the developer's skills.

Also, there's another set of ZBA minutes that gives some indication of how well the project went.