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mailmanIt is accepted political wisdom these days that, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” On the other hand, as an elected representative of Tompkins County’s District 10 residents, I feel obligated to keep my constituents informed of what the County Legislature is doing, what I’m doing and how I’m voting as a Legislator, and – most importantly – why. It is in that spirit that I am responding to Casey Stevens’ vigorous criticism of my comments and my vote in his editorial in last week’s Lansing Star.

The criticism in question related to the Legislature’s vote to purchase property on Tioga Street in downtown Ithaca to build additional office space, and provide additional parking, for County employees. Currently, a majority of the County’s employees are jammed into a four-building “campus” located in downtown Ithaca, the most central location from which the County can provide services to its residents. The buildings that comprise the campus are the County Courthouse (shared with employees of the State court system), the Old Jail, the Daniel Tompkins Building (the old courthouse), and Building C (housing the Board of Elections et al.), all of which surround a parking area that is also shared with State court system employees.

The County must also rent space at downtown prices for some of the employees who can’t be squeezed into the four campus buildings. A new County office building and off-street parking on the nearby Tioga Street property would alleviate our employees’ crowding and parking issues, allow us to move the employees currently occupying rented spaces into a County-owned building, and allow us to vacate and sell the old and exceedingly unattractive Building C. And that is why I – and many of my colleagues - voted to purchase the Tioga property.

Of course the County is aware that there are zoning issues relating to developing the Tioga property. Indeed, those issues are the reason why the property languished on the market for many, many months. The City of Ithaca, and residents of Sears Street and the Cascadilla neighborhood, have made it abundantly clear that they want the decades-old parking lot on the portion of the property along Sears Street converted to housing. The County has worked diligently with the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency and Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services to come up with several options for the property that would include affordable housing options along Sears Street. Members of the Common Council indicated that County development including these affordable housing options would be acceptable to the City.

Then, on the day that the Legislature was to vote on the purchase of the property, the Legislators received the letter referenced in Mr. Stevens’ editorial. (The letter was dated April 11, but was not sent until April 16.) The letter, written on letterhead of the City’s Department of Planning and Development and signed by Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken, stated that the County’s building plans for the Tioga property were “at odds” with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and its historic district Design Guidelines.

The letter suggested that the Design Guidelines could be used to block or delay the County’s building project, even though the County is exempt from the City’s zoning restrictions in these circumstances. The letter also raised concerns about “the sale and potential redevelopment” of Building C, a part of which is within the DeWitt Park Historic District and which is located adjacent to historic Boardman House. The letter noted that the Design Guidelines could be used to preclude a potential purchaser of Building C from maximizing the zoning potential of the site, and that the County should consider this when pricing and marketing Building C.

Given the history of the County’s negotiations with the City, I found the tone and timing of Mr. McCracken’s letter threatening. I perceived it as an attempt to intimidate the Legislators, to convince us not to vote for a property purchase that is clearly in the best interests of the County, its employees, and the vast majority of its residents. I was, as Mr. Stevens wrote, peeved, and for that I make no apology.

I expect that governments, their representatives, and their employees will deal honestly and respectfully with each other. I expect that they will honor their agreements, including agreements in principle. I expect that they will not try to influence each other’s decision-making processes through intimidation. I leave it to you to decide if these expectations make me an “impudent snob,” as Mr. Stevens alleges.

If you have questions or concerns about the County’s Tioga Street property purchase, or any other County issues, please feel free to contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Thank you.

Deborah Dawson
Tompkins County Legislator, District 10
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