“F.O.C.U.S. on Onondaga Lake” County Report

A roadmap to facilitate reconnecting the lake with the community

“… our beautiful lake, on all its beautiful shores and borders, will present a view of one continuous villa, ornamental with its shady groves and hanging gardens and connected by a wide and splendid avenue that should encircle its entire waters, and furnish a delightful drive to the gay and prosperous citizens of the town, who will, towards the close of each summer’s day, throng it for pleasure, relaxation, or the improvement of health …”
Harvey Baldwin, first mayor of Syracuse, 1847

In 1928, one of the first proposals was produced for the future of Onondaga Lake. In that report, it stated that Onondaga Lake would never be cleaned until the “public demand is strong.” It has taken more than 84 years, but for the first time in several generations, residents of Onondaga County will have the opportunity to experience a clean and useable Onondaga Lake. Today, the public demand is strong and they want a clean and useable Onondaga Lake NOW.

Although for the most part of the last century, the community has made its desires clear on the restoration of Onondaga Lake, it has taken us a long time to get to this point. In 1997, F.O.C.U.S. Greater Syracuse, Inc. conducted over 200 visioning sessions, resulting in more than 15,000 ideas, which were then distilled into 87 goals. At its 1998 Visions Fair, more than 5,000 attendees voted for the goals most important to them, ranking their preference. The No. 3 goal was to develop and clean Onondaga Lake.

F.O.C.U.S. followed up the community’s request for a clean Onondaga Lake in 2003, when it invited 90 organizations, government departments, developers and engineering firms to a meeting to discuss the existing benefits and challenges of our waterways. After 10 months of research, conversation and visual presentations, F.O.C.U.S. compiled the citizens’ findings into a report of ideas, actions and resources (Citizen Action Report on CNY Water and Waterways). In 2012, when County Executive Joanne Mahoney and the County Legislature approached F.O.C.U.S. with the opportunity to provide a roadmap to reconnect Onondaga Lake with its community, F.O.C.U.S. felt it was obligated to deliver on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Onondaga County residents that have voiced their desire for a clean Onondaga Lake over the past century.

Among the past 84 years of reports, the residents of Onondaga County have put forth numerous ideas about how to best recreate on the lake and use its shoreline. In a strong show of support for the public’s desires, Onondaga County, Honeywell International, Inc. and the lakeside municipalities have adopted and implemented many of those ideas. Water quality of the lake has improved dramatically due to cleanup efforts. Trails have been constructed around half of the lake, with plans in place to extend the trail network and eventually complete the highly desired Loop-the-Lake Trail. Fish populations have increased dramatically, and the lake now boasts high-quality sport fishing.

The purpose of this report is to identify key concepts from past reports that are applicable and desired today and to provide a roadmap on how the county could proceed. In this report, F.O.C.U.S. presents its findings from reviewing 54 separate reports, presentations and proposals on the restoration of Onondaga Lake spanning 84 years, from 1928 to 2012. To determine which ideas identified within those reports are relevant today and are part of the current citizens’ vision for Onondaga Lake, F.O.C.U.S. conducted a five-month survey. The citizens are passionate about what will happen with Onondaga Lake and several groups made the effort to visit F.O.C.U.S. to partake in the survey.

This report will present the findings from the nearly 1,100 surveys collected. In addition to the reports and surveys, F.O.C.U.S. Greater Syracuse sat down with 100 key stakeholders representing government, private business, nonprofits and community organizations to gain a clear, overall understanding of what the Central New York community wants from Onondaga Lake. This report will present key ideas that developed through those conversations. F.O.C.U.S. included any citizen that wanted to participate in this study, from 8th graders to former U.S. Representative James Walsh.

Our Conclusions
Two overarching themes united the thousands of suggestions that appeared in the 54 reports published since 1928 and throughout the 1,100 surveys collected: the public wants to use Onondaga Lake and enjoy its offerings. The public has a strong desire for the Onondaga Lake shoreline to remain in public domain for all citizens to enjoy. Within this report, we have identified concepts that fall within the citizens’ vision for the future of the lake for both recreation use and low-impact, focused development, which we believe to be viable and will reconnect Onondaga Lake with the community.

Our findings indicate that the public is ready and anxious to reconnect to a cleaner Onondaga Lake and it is invested in implementation of their visions and in continuous improvements. Our research has shown that the most important priority to the residents of the Onondaga County is that the lake remain in the public domain (KEEP THE LAKE PUBLIC). We strongly believe the county needs a reaffirmation of its commitment to preserve the public nature and access to the land, whether that is in the form of a proclamation, legislation or memorandum of understanding. The citizens want to be reassured that this land will remain public.

The second most important feature that emerged from our research is that the shoreline maintain natural areas with minimal development and F.O.C.U.S. believes that does need to be a priority for the future of Onondaga Lake shoreline.

Currently, according to our research, the majority of visitors to Onondaga Lake Park visit the park for exercise, recreation and events. This desire for outdoor opportunities has carried forward with our survey results and interview findings with a large percentage wanting pedestrian and biking trails connecting Onondaga Lake Park with Downtown Syracuse and for the Loop-the-Lake trail to be completed, which is underway. Since outdoor recreation ranked highly, we believe that a trail system, traveling through various habitats, ecosystems and development create an excellent opportunity to include bird watching stations, fishing piers, additional picnic areas and educational opportunities.

A third aspect that the public has indicated is important is an education component. The public has made it clear they would like to see cultural, educational and nature centers as part of the overall vision for the shoreline. Many others also indicated they would like to see a substantial Native American heritage and democratic center, specifically on the north shore of the lake. These centers can complement and work well with the highly desired trail system by adding environmental education and cultural components. We see this as an opportunity to involve schools across Onondaga County by using Onondaga Lake and its variety of ecosystems for environmental educational opportunities. Students can use piers to gather water samples for testing. They could use bird blinds to observe and learn about nature. They can experience the shoreline to gain a deeper understanding of natural processes. They can learn the history of the first people and their role in shaping our democratic government.

While surveys showed that allowing swimming and a beach area was moderately important, this came up as a valued priority through interviews. The younger residents and those newer to our community are eager to dip their toes in; while the residents who have lived here for a longer amount of time are hesitant. A major benefit indicated during interviews is that by adding swimming, the county could effectively and quickly change the community’s perception of Onondaga Lake from one of pollution and a liability to an asset. If swimming and a beach area are included, we would recommend an outreach program to re-educate the public about the safe and clean conditions of Onondaga Lake.

The least important aspects of Onondaga Lake shoreline to the citizens included residential development and commercial development. While many indicated focused, minimal-impact development is necessary (shelters, rest rooms, vending machines, charging stations, bike repair station, water fountains, etc.) and even desired, the majority of development should remain in nearby areas, such as Solvay, Liverpool and the Inner Harbor. We believe limiting development to these areas create opportunities to develop strong, community-based commercial districts, in line with the county’s Sustainability Plan. Let the development be focused in nearby neighborhoods and visitors to the shoreline are more likely to extend their visits into these communities, making an economic impact.

Ideas and visions for 84 years revealed that citizens want very similar objectives today as in the past. They want to be included, engaged and informed on the decisions, plans and progress for this project. Onondaga Lake is an asset to this community. A big asset. We believe the county needs to develop a set of guidelines and standard for design and development to give the shoreline a cohesive feel. We also believe the county should develop an interactive web site to gather ideas and visions from the public and inform them on decisions and progress made.

Read the full report: F.O.C.U.S. on Onondaga Lake

Please note that this report may not be in its final form and is subject to change.

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