During Wednesday’s Common Council meeting, councilors weighed in on rumors that the city is trying to prevent the Erie Canal Village from opening.
Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers said several local residents have posted on social media, particularly Facebook, about the Erie Canal Village “and there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
She said, “The main gist of most of the posts is that the city is preventing the Erie Canal Village from opening because of a zoning change. First and foremost, even when the city owned and ran the Erie Canal Village, it wasn’t zoned” as a tourist/recreation site.
The Village was sold by the city to a private company in 2002. Wheelhorse Development, the entity that owned the site, was controlled by Ronald Trottier, whose company Railstar bought it from the city. The 210-acre historic site is located at 5789 Rome-New London Road.
In April 2015, Empire State Heritage Park announced it would take over as property manager of the historic recreation site. The owner signed a five-year lease-purchase deal.
Then in April 2019, the property was bought from Wheelhorse by Richard Rios, of Brea, Calif., who stated at the time, he had plans to deem the property “Cross Roads Redemption Church,” a non-denominational Christian parish.
The Village was in a “Natural Areas” district, according to city zoning maps, and a “place of worship” is not a permitted use of property in such a district under the city’s zoning code. However, Rios had the option to seek a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals to move forward with his project.
“New owners purchased the Village” in 2019, “about the time the council adopted a new zoning code that October, and after a public hearing was held where it was adopted in about November,” Rogers explained. “It changed from a preservation zone to a natural area and under ‘natural area,’ there are limited uses. And because the property has gone vacant for more than a year — this happens in any situation, that a pre-existing non-conforming use ceases for more than a year — (the zoning) is no longer allowed. Because the Village has not operated in more than a year, the codes department determined it’s not allowed.”
The councilor said there was a meeting with Rios, members of the Rome Historical Society, the city attorney and a couple city officials where several items about the Village were discussed, including the zoning and status. “We told the owner he needed a variance for the property — we discussed that there’s city-owned property on the Village, the condition of the city-owned buildings and that there are still city-owned (historic) items there,” said Rogers. Back during a meeting in 2020, Rios, “agreed he would get a variance,” she said. “Twice the city sent him the variance paperwork, but he has not applied. And it would be highly unlikely that if he did apply, that he would get it.”
Rogers said she, along with Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli and Sixth Ward Councilor Riccardo D. Dursi Jr., have had discussions about the property being zoned to allow use of the Village “by right,” so Rios wouldn’t need a variance.
“He’s still bound to do everything necessary to get the business operational, and several buildings have been deemed unsafe on the property,” she said. “He needs to take care of those.”
Rogers said she and Viscelli would submit legislation to allow “use by right” of the Village, and would work with Chief Code Enforcement Officer Mark Domenico and Deputy Director of Community and Economic Development Matthew J. Andrews.
“We would want the use of the Erie Canal Village sold as a deed restriction to be used as an historic museum,” said the councilor. “That will be coming — we’re working with Mark Domenico and Matt Andrews with the language on that.”
As for the information about the Village spreading on social media, “The vast majority on Facebook is not factual, and we’re working to resolve the zoning issue,” Rogers said. “If he (Rios) doesn’t pursue that, we will make it easier so he can use the property by right.”
Meanwhile, all resolutions were unanimously passed at the conclusion of the meeting, including authorizing Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo to enter into an agreement with the Oneida County Stop-DWI program “Crack Down Patrols” in the amount of $3,750. The agreement will allow Rome Police Department to participate with the Oneida County “Crack Down Patrols” program, a county-wide effort to reduce alcohol-related traffic injuries and fatalities on targeted holiday dates.
A resolution authorizing the mayor to execute and accept a use and occupancy permit with the state Department of Transportation related to the Mohawk River Trail Phase II project passed; as well as a resolution authorizing the submittance of the 2021 Community Development Block Grant Annual Action Plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and authorizing the mayor to enter into a poll site agreement with Oneida County.
Lease with RACC extended
As for ordinances passed, the council authorized the mayor to extend the lease agreement with Rome Art and Community Center, 308 W. Bloomfield St., for city-owned property located on the site. First Corporation Council Gerard Feeney asked that the council make an amendment to the agreement, making the five-year ending date 2025, rather than 2026.
Councilor Dursi said the lease agreement was “a great move,” but he said his concern was that a plan of action was needed for all the city’s cultural and historic buildings so that they are “kept up.”
“I would like to put out there — maybe a friendly reminder — to look into possibly getting that on the capital improvement plan to maintain these buildings as they should be, so they’re here for future generations,” he said.
An ordinance was also passed to rename a section of state road King Pin Lane, which had already been identified by that name, by the state.
In other business:
• Common Council President Viscelli said councilors would be going back to council chambers for Common Council meetings for the next April 28 meeting. Prior to that, the city will work with M.A. Polce to make sure all IT is working properly, she said. The meeting will be virtual for residents to hear and view electronically. The goal is to begin in-person meetings in council chambers for the first meeting in May.
• Second Ward Councilor John B. Mortise said he’s received calls about four-wheelers on trails, streets and sidewalks and reminded residents that area checks don’t take priority over emergency calls to the police department, and that police are handling the situations.
“RPD is trying their best, it’s just going to take time,” Mortise said. “If they catch a few here and there, maybe it will stop. We want everyone to know that we try to get these folks off the streets as needed. Also, there’s been some incidents at Byrne Dairy. They are incidents that are secluded, so the public not in danger, and they have been handled. Arrests have been made. RPD has also been handling that.”
Viscelli said she has received communications from users of the Mohawk Trail about a man wearing a mask and carrying what looked like a lead pipe, acting strangely.
RPD “is using the bike patrol to patrol the trail, but they can’t be everywhere,” she said. “So if someone sees something suspicious, be sure to call 911 right away.”