Plan Commission Backs Into Hearings on Upzoning

By Peter Dorfman

Bloomington’s Plan Commission held its first debate session on the city’s new zoning map and amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) on Monday, March 8. The Commission has mapped out a series of four meetings to address the map and amendments, including what promises to be a marathon session on March 25, on the Mayor’s plan to upzone the core neighborhoods.

Commissioners addressed only a handful of technical amendments on this first night of debate, all of which it dispatched unanimously. The meeting, scheduled to last from 5:30 to 9:00 pm, wrapped up at 7:30.

The Commission, in organizing discussion across four nights the way it has, is trying to tackle the easy stuff before getting to the contentious issues, which sounds reasonable, superficially. But what it’s also doing is preserving the option of densifying neighborhoods, no matter how much opposition it hears, as long as possible. The Commission has begun by limiting discussion — and public comments — to the evening’s immediate agenda. That decision is consequential.

Want to have your say about the upzoning proposal at an upcoming Plan Commission hearing? For dates, times and Zoom links, click here.

March 22, the Commission will debate amendments to chapters 3, 4, 6, and 7 of the UDO, as well as a proposal to merge the Residential Estate (RE) zoning designation with Residential Large Lot (R1). Essentially, debate that evening will be about how the UDO will be administered.

Note, though, that that debate will be conducted with the built-in assumption that neighborhoods will be upzoned with plexes, because the plex debate is scheduled for later, on March 25. So any decisions on that evening’s amendments will have to include provision for plex development. (Any public comment that bears specifically on whether plexes should or will be permitted uses will be discouraged because “that’s a topic for March 25.”)

One overlapping topic that will be in scope for March 22 is the way the UDO defines standards for approval of Conditional Uses. If you are concerned about the re-introduction of plexes in the core, this matters a great deal, because one of the “compromises” the administration made when it revised its upzoning proposal in February was to promise that all applications to create duplexes would be conditional, as opposed to by-right.

Does this matter? Is a conditional use any less likely to be permitted than a by-right use? It depends on the conditions spelled out for conditional use approval in the UDO. The amendments that will be discussed on March 22 have cut back on the requirements for conditional use applicants.

The city has promised in its February 11 press release and in several presentations on the revised proposal that all plex applications will require public notification of neighbors and will be subject to a public hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals. We need to determine how literally we should take this, because up to now, conditional use applications generally have gone first to a Hearing Officer in the city’s Planning & Transportation Department. A Hearing Officer can look at the application, determine that it meets the standards spelled out in the UDO, and rubber-stamp the application without a public hearing at the BZA.

The city’s Public Hearing “Story Map” gives a pretty clear indication that duplex applications will all go to the BZA only “initially.”

Will that happen to duplex applications in the core neighborhoods? We don’t know. If the BZA does hear a duplex application, what kinds of objections from neighbors will be heard and taken into account, and what kinds will be ignored if the application meets the standards in the UDO? We don’t know.

One thing we can guess, though: The BZA will not have any standards to refer to regarding increased traffic, increased competition for street parking, or any other objection related to cars. The current language in the conditional use standards in the UDO includes some cryptic references to automobiles; they’re gone in the amended version. If you have a problem with that, March 22 is the evening when you should show up for the Plan Commission hearing and make your voice heard.

The conditional use issue would be irrelevant to plexes in the core if plexes were stripped out of the UDO amendments. But that discussion won’t happen until March 25, when the Commission will confront plexes head on. So the conditional use conversation on March 22 has to assume the plexes are coming.

The Commission noted that if the March 22 discussion becomes contentious and can’t be completed that night, it could slop over into March 25. That raises the potential that people highly concerned about the plexes will show up on March 25, hear spillover discussion from 3/22, get bored and leave.

The March 25 hearing…could be a long one.

Could the Commission be persuaded to limit plexes in the core neighborhoods, or recommend to the City Council that they be rejected entirely? It’s probably a long shot.

If plexes are further restricted in R1-R3 zones based on March 25 discussion, commissioners who favor upzoning still have an option to promote them: By expanding the Residential Urban (R4) zones on the zoning map. Recall that the administration originally proposed to blanket the core neighborhoods with R4, which allows duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes and larger structures (conditionally). The “compromise” upzoning proposal pulled R4 zoning back to small areas of the core (mostly areas currently zoned as Planned Unit Developments — PUDs — which city planners are trying to rezone to follow standard definitions), citing “public concerns.” But the Plan Commission has the authority to change the map.

But that’s a subject for another night. The Plan Commission won’t discuss the zoning map until the 29th. They won’t take public comment about the map on the 25th.

This is all happening backwards. Ultimately, everything depends on the map; the UDO amendments mean one thing with the plexes in the picture, and another entirely without the plexes. The City Council, which probably gets the amendments and the zoning map in April, should debate all of this in the opposite order from what the Plan Commission is following.

Roughly 80 people attended the first Plan Commission hearing. Some other attendees’ comments:

“We logged on the call and after seeing the agenda…we decided to wait until it was more pertinent to the plexes issue. Then we logged off.

“Our feelings are that the city is trying to ram through the changes to the UDO by doing it during a continuing pandemic so that we pesky citizens are limited in using our voices. It feels sneaky and heavy handed. We are opposed to plexes in our neighbor and very disappoint in the way the decisions are being handled.”

Vernon & Cheryl Sweeney, Near West Side

“It seems that the ‘technical’ changes were reasonable on their merit but most will be unnecessary if the UDO fails. The whole discussion was based on the assumption that the UDO change passes. You don’t discuss the changes necessary to increase the transparency of a proposal until you decide you will accept the proposal in the first place. The 3/25 discussion should have happened first followed by last night’s discussion…”

C. Trzcinka, Elm Heights

“I thought this meeting went as most of these post UDO hearings do, with a lot that was in the UDO being threatened by ‘small, insignificant’ changes that will dramatically impact the actual voice of the people.  From allowing staff or a hearing officer to decide on changes, to removing the public process for building an ADU, this is an attempt by the building community to remove barriers…The positives that I heard had to do with the Commission getting responses from people in the community about what they heard, and suggesting amendments.  I think it is important for people to take this seriously, and to send comments to the Commissioners, expecting they will seriously consider the points made.”

Sandi Clothier, Near West Side

“It might be okay to allow duplexes in Spicewood because it wouldn’t have a major impact on the neighborhood in a short term but duplexes in the core neighborhoods will cause serious damage. Duplexes should not be allowed in any single family neighborhood (except R4) so that everyone is the city is treated equally.”

Spicewood resident (name withheld)
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