Where Are We Now?

By Peter Dorfman

There’s no point in trying to sugar-coat what’s been going on in the City Council. Opponents of the city’s upzoning plan turned out in large numbers to support Amendment 1, to remove the plexes from the amendment to the UDO. By Council Member Dave Rollo’s count, upzoning opponents who spoke during the public comment period on the second night of debate on Amendment 1 outnumbered upzoning supporters by nine to one. It didn’t matter. Council members weren’t listening. They’ve been ignoring us all along. 

The Council has never given any evidence that they are moved by the strength of opposition. The strategy has been to let people vent, parse their input only for the purpose of crafting weak rebuttals, and then push ahead with the original plan. Does anyone believe the rollback of R4 zones was a response to public input? It seems obvious that the Mayor never expected blanket R4 to be accepted by the public. The rollback was always part of the plan, intended to cushion the impact of public opposition to the entire upzoning project.

What we have as of today are duplexes as conditional uses in all of Bloomington’s R1, R2 and R3 zones (except, of course, the areas with covenants prohibiting multi-unit development — no one knows which neighborhoods those are or how many there are). It was hard to listen to the pro-plex advocates congratulating themselves for being big enough to accept this non-concession as a “compromise,” but it’s done.

What remains now is to create some guardrails in the UDO so that duplex developers don’t just run wild in our neighborhoods. Dave Rollo and Susan Sandberg authored another amendment — Amendment 3 — that caps Board of Zoning Appeals approvals to 15 plexes total per year in the R1, R2 and R3 zones, and restores the 150-foot radial buffer between them that the city itself proposed back in February (but the Plan Commission foolishly removed). That amendment passed May 6, with the surprising support of pro-density ideologues Matt Flaherty and Kate Rosenbarger. Only Council Members Steve Volan and Isabel Piedmont-Smith voted against the restrictions.

Volan and Piedmont-Smith placed the interests of people who now rent in multifamily housing and downtown-dwelling students — who they admitted don’t show up to express themselves at meetings and don’t vote — ahead of the interests of long-term Bloomington residents who have a deep, personal and permanent stake in this city. 

“I represent more students than any other district, by far,” Volan told me in a recent email. “They all but don’t vote. Yet they make up half the city’s population. Should I really not care about the water they drink, the buses they ride, the fire department that protects them as well as you? Students may not be voters, but they are constituents; they’re people, and they’re here. Meanwhile, where were all these anti-plexers during, say, ordinance 21-06, about the homeless in the parks? I’ve seen every kind of group come out to council meetings, and there’s never a group that comes to all of them. The only real referendum in Indiana is the ballot box.”

Piedmont-Smith said something similar the night the Council voted down Amendment 1. Both of these council members have subordinated the interests of Bloomingtonians who have articulated specific, practical, long-term concerns about the stability of their neighborhoods and of the city, to those of faceless, uncounted, uncountable and unaccounted-for residents who couldn’t bestir themselves to log into Zoom meetings and speak up.

I submit that that’s not how democracy works. Volan is right — the only real referendum in Indiana is the ballot box. That’s why, I believe, it was so important to the Hamilton administration and its allies on the Council to get this done now, when the ballot box is inaccessible to us for two more years.

The objective now for Bloomington’s upzoning opponents is to rally candidates, from among the smart, articulate and committed people who opposed this sellout of Bloomington to real estate profiteers, to come forward, run for elected offices in Bloomington and Monroe County in 2023, and boot the irresponsible ideologues who foisted upzoning on us out of government.

Because here’s the thing: Council members are trying to put on a collegial show of fellowship and compromise — now. But in six months, pro-density planners, commissioners and Council members will be back, arguing that they came together and passed the upzoning measure, and the sky didn’t fall. They and their supporters will be demanding that the city once again throw open the neighborhoods for unrestricted plex development, to deal with the affordability crisis or climate change or whatever that week’s rationalization is.

There is a school of thought that there is still a chance of reversing the changes to Bloomington’s zoning, through another petition. The idea is that a petition signed by roughly five times the number of Bloomingtonians as signed the original Stop Bloomington Upzoning Resolution would legally obligate the City Council to stop what they’re doing and acknowledge it — and if the administration verified the signatures, the Council would then need a supermajority to pass the upzoning. The 5-4 vote by which the Committee of the Whole advanced the measure (by defeating Amendment 1) would not be sufficient. 

If the theory is correct, that would stop the upzoning. Will this work? I don’t know; I’m not a lawyer. I think it’s worth a try. Sign the petition, and then forward it on to as many Bloomington friends as you can. Time is of the essence — this would have to happen before the Council votes to pass the entire amended UDO update package.

In the meantime, there are at least two more amendments on deck, sponsored by Rollo and Sandberg. 

  • Amendment 4 is intended to make the Administration and Council put up or shut up about housing affordability. In these debates, in the Plan Commission and the Council, city planners have wavered whenever they’ve been confronted about whether upzoning would contribute anything to affordability. Amendment 4 would limit duplexes to two bedrooms per unit, but offers a carrot — a third bedroom in each unit — if the developer agrees to permanently income-restrict both units for tenants earning below 120% of the HUD area median income (AMI), or to permanently restrict one of the units for those earning below 80% of the AMI. (Under Indiana law, the city can’t require a developer to provide income-restricted units, but this kind of incentive approach would be legal.)
  • Amendment 5 focuses on the vociferous criticism among plex opponents who argue that conditional use provides no protection for neighbors of the new plexes, because all the developer needs to demonstrate, during a hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals, is that the plex meets the use-specific requirements for a duplex that are spelled out in the UDO. What opponents really care about, numerous Plan Commission and Council meetings showed, are issues related to traffic and parking impacts. The UDO used to include use-specific requirements for conditional use applications that directly referenced traffic and parking, but city planners stripped those references out of the version the Council passed in 2020. Amendment 5 would require the BZA to find that the proposed duplex “will not cause undue traffic congestion nor draw significant amounts of traffic through residential streets” before approving a new duplex.

The Council will get to Amendment 4, and maybe Amendment 5, Wednesday night, May 12, at its open session at 6:30 (Zoom link https://bloomington.zoom.us/j/94994332997?pwd=R0VsZ1NSMWxYMXBjbW9mRkQ3dHFTQT09). As always, your attendance and support for these amendments is critically important.

Bloomington is an angry, polarized city now. Plex opponents feel utterly disrespected and are saying so to the Council. It’s unclear how long it’s going to take for the city to heal from this ill-advised and utterly unnecessary upheaval, but there will be no healing without the kinds of development guardrails Rollo and Sandberg are proposing.

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