City council: Duplexes won’t be disallowed in Bloomington’s central residential areas

An ordinance that would change Bloomington’s basic law on land use, so that duplexes would be permitted (aka “by right”) in central residential areas, has survived a proposed amendment that would have disallowed duplexes there.

At a special session of the city council on Tuesday, Amendment 01 to Ordinance 21-23 failed on a 4–5 vote. It got support from its sponsors, Susan Sandberg, Dave Rollo, and Ron Smith, who were joined by Sue Sgambelluri.

Voting against the amendment were Jim Sims, Isabel Piedmont-Smith, Steve Volan, Kate Rosenbarger, and Matt Flaherty.

The current unified development ordinance (UDO) disallows duplexes in R1 (Residential Large Lot), R2 (Residential Medium Lot), and R3 (Residential Small Lot) districts. The failed amendment would have preserved that state of affairs, where existing duplexes can persist as non-conforming uses, but no new duplexes can be built.

Likely to be considered on Wednesday, when the special session is set to continue at 7:30 p.m., is an amendment to Ordinance 21-23, sponsored by Sims and Piedmont-Smith, that would still allow duplexes in R1, R2, and R3, but only as a conditional use. The granting of a conditional use permit requires a hearing in front of the board of zoning appeals.

By The Square Beacon’s count, 72 people weighed in during public commentary at Tuesday’s session, just 6 of them in favor of allowing duplexes in the R-districts. That meant those speaking in favor of the amendment outnumbered those speaking against it by a 9-to-1 margin.

Only those who did not speak on the amendment at last week’s city council committee-of-the-whole meeting were allowed to speak on Tuesday. That made for a total of 146 different people who weighed in on the amendment.

Last week’s 74 public commenters were in favor of continuing the prohibition of new duplexes in the R-districts by about a 2-to-1 margin.

After Tuesday’s public comment had concluded, Dave Rollo led off deliberations by the city council. Among his talking points was the idea that allowing duplexes in R1, R2, and R3 is not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.

Rollo said, “The proponents of allowing conversion of single family homes to duplexes have simply disregarded the comprehensive plan—ignored the directives to avoid placing these forms in neighborhoods.”

The text of the 2018 comprehensive plan cited by Rollo reads:

Policy 5.3.1: Encourage opportunities for infill and redevelopment across Bloomington with consideration for increased residential densities, complementary design, and underutilized housing types such as accessory dwelling units, duplex, triplex, and fourplex buildings, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, townhouses, row houses, and live/work spaces. Avoid placing these high density forms in single-family neighborhoods.

Later in deliberations, Steve Volan responded to Rollo’s point by saying that the one sentence Rollo was citing was not representative of the plan as a whole. “All we’re focused on is Policy 5.3.1 and one sentence in it. One sentence,” Volan said.

Volan described the origin of the sentence: “That last sentence, ‘Avoid placing these high density forms in single-family neighborhoods,’ was the result of Amendment 49 to Ordinance 17-28, sponsored by former councilmember [Chris] Sturbaum.”
About that sentence, Volan said, “It obviously runs counter to the rest of policy 5.3.1, which calls for increased residential densities…”

Volan expressed some regret in voting for the amendment that added the sentence: “This one sentence has been emphasized almost at the expense of the entire rest of the plan. Had I known that one sentence of one policy of one goal of one chapter of the entire comprehensive plan would be the only one quoted by so many people, I would never have voted for it.”

Rollo countered by pointing to the several other places in the comprehensive plan that are quoted out in materials supporting the amendment that were provided by its sponsors.

The five councilmembers who voted against Amendment 01 on Tuesday were already in some way “on the record” supporting duplexes in R1, R2, and R3. That’s based on 2019 council deliberations and public commentary on the UDO (Volan, Flaherty, Rosenbarger, Sims) or their sponsorship of the current possible amendment that would allow duplexes on conditional use (Piedmont-Smith and Sims).

Sue Sgambelluri’s vote on Tuesday was less predictable.

Sgambelluri was led to vote for Amendment 01, and against duplexes, in part based on her analysis of home ownership’s role in affordable housing. “Even with all the apartment units that are being built, we really do need more affordable housing,” Sgambelluri said. She continued, “And I believe that in that regard, what needs to be emphasized is home ownership, and the opportunity it brings to build equity over time and to promote stability in neighborhoods.”

Because it’s not possible to require owner-occupancy for duplexes, Sgambelluri considers it unlikely that newly-built duplexes will be owner-occupied. “If we could require new plexes to be owner occupied, at least in part, this entire conversation would have been very different. But that’s not an option.”

Sgambelluri does not think there are practical ways to incentivize owner-occupancy of new duplexes: “Theoretically, we could incentivize owner occupancy. But in the absence of those incentives, I don’t believe we have enough tools in place to dissuade those developers and property owners who see the profit potential from instantlysimply creating more market-rate student rentals.”

In her remarks, Isabel Piedmont-Smith took up the issue of the dramatically lopsided sentiment against duplexes during that night’s public comment. She said, “I represent people who live in Henderson Court, Acadia Court, Timber Ridge, Summit Point, Barclay Square, Walnut Springs, Walnut Grove, Walnut Woods, and Oakmont Terrace, just to name a few multifamily housing developments in District 5. I have not heard from any of them.”

Piedmont-Smith continued, “So when I hear people say, ‘Look, everybody who has spoken tonight, or the vast majority, are in favor of Amendment 01,’ that doesn’t mean a vast majority of my constituents are in favor of Amendment 01.”

What does it mean? Piedmont-Smith said, “That means people who are plugged in, who have the time, and intellect and energy, to figure out that the city is talking about something that may affect them, those are the people who have the time and ability to speak about amendments to our unified development ordinance.”

Matt Flaherty found a bit of common ground in some aspects of the concept plan that the sponsors of Amendment 01 had provided to buttress the amendment.

Flaherty said, “At a high level, I support the concept plan of this amendment that calls out the village centers concept, which is, of course, part of our adopted comprehensive plan.” Flaherty concluded, “So I support that approach to enhance and plan for multiple economic and cultural hubs throughout the city creating walkable nodes of activity around the centers.”

Susan Sandberg asked to go last during the first round of public comment, a request that was granted by council president Jim Sims, who was chairing the meeting.

By the time it was Sandberg’s turn, it was apparent the amendment would fail. Sandberg said, “Whether this succeeds or not, and it looks at this point that it will not, I want to assure the public that I am listening to you, I am concerned about the health of our neighborhoods, and that I will continue to be vigilant with that throughout the remainder of this process.”

Sandberg continued, “I will continue to listen and I will always stand for the health of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are important.” Sandberg pointed to the impact of Indiana University on Bloomington’s housing market. “[Neighborhoods] certainly are [important] in this community with a big university at its center. We have rental pressures that are unique. No one neighborhood is the same.”

“[Neighborhoods] require a lot of careful consideration and how we protect the interests of the people who have invested in their homes here,” Sandberg said.

What’s next?

The special meeting of the city council that started on Tuesday, lasting until a little before 11 p.m., was recessed until 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. That comes after a regular city council meeting that is set to start at 6:30 p.m.

On the council’s regular meeting agenda is an ordinance that sets penalties for a failure to display a residential neighborhood parking permit.

When the special meeting resumes on Wednesday, it’s likely that an amendment sponsored by Piedmont-Smith and Sims—to make duplexes a conditional use, not a permitted use—will be moved for consideration.

Other amendments could also be introduced on Wednesday. One possibility is an amendment that would add a 150-foot buffer around new duplexes, with a time constraint on additional duplexes within the buffer, or a cap on the total number of duplexes.

7 thoughts on “City council: Duplexes won’t be disallowed in Bloomington’s central residential areas

  1. Please note that I used the wrong word by mistake. I meant “education” not “intellect” in the following quote: Piedmont-Smith said, “That means people who are plugged in, who have the time, and intellect and energy, to figure out that the city is talking about something that may affect them, those are the people who have the time and ability to speak about amendments to our unified development ordinance.”

    1. It strikes me as a rather stunning hypocrisy that the same members of the community, who have disrupted their lives by sacrificing thousands of collective hours to this legislative issue, who were criticized in 2019 for showing up in the chambers in large numbers, now are equally criticized for appearing on Zoom? Bias, anyone? And Council Member, your statement last night that you have no clue what your renting constituents think on this issue, but you, nevertheless, presume to have represented them in your vote? That is the height of arrogance and, yes, privilege.

      Thank you, Dave, for your continued excellence in reporting.

  2. I do not understand why these amendments are not made available to the public seven days in advance of the meeting. Are they following property notice requirements?

    1. Bloomington’s city council allows for amendments to be unveiled and moved until the last moment before a vote on the main question is taken, just as long as they are provided in writing to members of the city council. The requirement that they be in writing is recorded in local code. Local code also has a “germaneness” requirement that helps to prevent complete chaos. This approach to “floor amendments” has been scrutinized a bit in the last 18 months, but has not resulted in any change to procedure.

      Worth noting is the approach to this issue that is taken by Ann Arbor’s city council, which has also has a requirement that ordinances not be introduced and give a final vote at the same meeting—just like second class cities in Indiana. If an amendment is introduced and passed on the occasion of a “second reading” in front of the Ann Arbor city council that resets the “ordinance as amended” to the status of a first reading. That means Ann Arbor city council amendments can come “late” to the surface, but the consequence of a “late” amendment passing is that the final vote has to wait until the next meeting.

      1. Thank you, Dave, you really are a wonderful asset to our community.

  3. Hello Dave – Just a small but important-to-me correction in one of the quotes attributed to me …
    Rather than “… instantly creating more market-rate student rentals …”, the quote should read, “… simply creating more market-rate student rentals.” I tend to speak quickly and, with technological quirks in sound quality (and captioning), I’m guessing that one word sounded a lot like the other.” Thanks. – Sue –

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