On Wednesday, Monroe County commissioners rejected a request for a rezone of 37 acres south of Bloomington for a housing project called Southern Meadows, a proposed development of 95 paired townhomes for a total of 190 housing units.
In that configuration, a townhome sits on its own lot with its own yard, and shares a wall on one side with its neighbor.
It’s the second time in about a month that county commissioners have turned down a rezone request in the Clear Creek area, south of the city of Bloomington boundary, but inside an area that’s a part of the current Bloomington annexation proposal.
In mid-May, commissioners rejected the rezone request for a much smaller proposal called Clear Creek Urban, just to the east of the Southern Meadows parcel.
Clear Creek Urban was mixed-use residential proposal that would have a developed a 4-acre parcel with five residential and commercial buildings that called for 31 new residences. The Clear Creek Urban petition, brought by Blind Squirrels, LLC, would have constructed attached townhomes, multi-family residences, and commercial space.
Blind Squirrels gets a mention in the meeting information packet about Southern Meadows, because of an easement granted by the owner of the smaller parcel to allow for access from Southern Meadows to the east-west That Road.
For both projects the stumbling block was density. As president of the board of commissioners Julie Thomas described the Southern Meadows project on Wednesday: “This is a lot of housing on not a lot of space.”
The project was pitched by developer Tom Wininger as offering home ownership as a possibility to the region’s workforce. He wants to build townhomes that would be priced at $250,000, which is currently a gap in the new housing market, he said.
In order to offer townhomes at that price point, he needs to build more of them than allowed under the maximum density in the county’s zoning code, Wininger said. That’s why the planned unit development (PUD) zoning was requested.
Wininger told county commissioners he paid $1.9 million for the land and had paid $2.8 million to improve the property. “We can do the math pretty quick and figure out that if you divide it by 90, you get $52,000 a lot. And I can’t get workforce housing at that.”
He continued, “If we divided by 190, we’re at $24,000. And I could probably make this happen, give the next generation an opportunity to own something.”
The $250,000 price point would be accessible to a single-earner household earning $18.27 an hour, Wininger said. That statement was disputed by commissioner Penny Githens, who said her calculations indicated that someone would need to be making $26 an hour, in order to afford a $250,000 house.
Wininger put the price point and the geography of the proposal in the context of some of the area’s employers who are currently expanding their work force.
“Catalent hired 1,200 people, Cook hired 300—they both want to hire more,” he said. Wininger added, “Cook is importing people from 15 counties to come work here. This project is six minutes to Catalent, eight minutes to Park 48.”
About the idea that workers hired by Cook, Catalent and Baxter could buy a house a short distance away from where they work, Wininger said, “You know, we’ve got to give these kids an opportunity.”
The project received a letter of support from Cook Group president Pete Yonkman, who wrote: “I can tell you on behalf of the Cook organization and our many current and future employees, projects like this are critical to the success of our community.” Yonkman’s letter continued, “Many of our employees are young and just starting their careers. They are excited to begin the journey of starting a family and owning a home.”
Other letters of support came from the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation, the Building Association of Southern Indiana, Bloomington Board of Realtors, and Farmers and Mechanics Federal.
Letters opposing the project came from residents who were concerned about density, and not persuaded by the argument based on the amount of Wininger’s investment in the land. “Why is it a concern that a developer spent a lot of money to create this plan? (He didn’t do it if he wasn’t planning to make money. His problem, not the public’s.),” wrote Alice Hawkins.
Speaking against the project during public commentary at Wednesday’s commissioners meeting was president of the county’s plan commission, Margaret Clements. She voted against the PUD zoning as a plan commissioner, which won the commission’s recommendation on a 5–4 vote.
The plan staff recommendation was denial, based on the findings of fact in the county’s highway and drainage engineer report, one of which cites the “extent to which the proposal departs from zoning and subdivision regulations such as density, dimension, bulk, use, required improvements, and construction and design standards.”
Clements said, “My primary complaint about this development is that it’s on complex sinkholes. There are close to 20 sinkholes, I think, on the property, and we find new ones from time to time.” It’s a point that commissioner Julie Thomas picked up in her remarks explaining her vote against the rezone. Thomas said the project was trying to “squeeze homes around sinkholes.”
Clements also expressed skepticism that the paired townhomes would be appealing to prospective buyers, saying, “This isn’t really the kind of house people want to live in.” She did not think it would help address the problem identified by Wininger, about workers needing to drive in to work from outside of Monroe County. “ I think that people will still be driving from out of the county,” Clements said.
In her remarks explaining her vote against the rezone, Githens said that using the IU Credit Union’s online mortgage calculator, she came up with $26 an hour as the needed income to afford a $250,000 house—more than the $18.27 Wininger cited. “I’m a skeptic, I apologize,” she said.
Githens gave an argument for building fewer, but more expensive houses, based on the idea that is sometimes called “filtering.” Githens said, “I think if more expensive homes are built, that people who are moving up can move into, that the homes that they sell, will perhaps fill some of that niche of affordable housing that we do need.” Githens said she agreed more affordable housing is needed.
In explaining her vote against the rezone, Thomas put some of the responsibility for making housing affordable on employers, to pay higher wages. Thomas said, “If you want to make a house affordable, then pay a wage that ensures that people can get into the houses that are available in the area.”
Thomas called the proposed design options a “cookie cutter look.” She said, “I personally really don’t like to see subdivisions come in where everything looks the same. And that’s something that’s noted by the planning staff in their recommendation of denial.”
For Thomas, the key point was the number of houses, given the size of the parcel. On that topic, she reprised her remark made in voting against the Clear Creek Urban project a month ago: “We are the county. Again, we’re not the city, we are the county.”
The third commissioner, Lee Jones, was absent from Wednesday’s meeting.