Christmas Eve deadline looms for Bloomington city council, friction on UDO hearing schedule might mean approaching apocalypse

At a work session held Friday, Bloomington city councilmembers tried for an hour to settle on an approach to its schedule of upcoming hearings and votes on amendments to the updated unified development ordinance (UDO). It’s the basic local law on land use and zoning in the city.

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Bloomington’s city council meets Friday in the McCloskey Room of city hall to hash through scheduling of UDO update hearings. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

They made only incremental progress.

What’s certain is that the UDO will appear as a first reading on the council’s Oct. 2 meeting agenda. It’s likely the council will vote that night to establish Oct. 16 as the first hearing date. From then through Christmas Eve—which is the end of the 90-day window for council action to amend and adopt the UDO—the council’s UDO calendar is still mostly a vacant lot, even after Friday’s work session.

The deadline is keyed to the certification of the plan commission’s 9–0 vote on Sept. 24 to recommend adoption of the draft. The commission considered and, to some extent amended the updated UDO, over a series meetings that started a month earlier.

The council’s Friday work session concluded with the understanding that council president, Dave Rollo, and attorney/administrator, Dan Sherman, would confer later, to draft a possible framework for the council’s UDO scheduling. If Sherman and Rollo are able to hammer out enough procedural details to them put to a vote on Oct. 2, it will mean they managed to reconcile two basic approaches debated at the work session.

Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith championed an approach weighted in favor of detailed presentations on four chunks of the UDO, spread out over at least four different meetings. She wants possible amendments  to be handled as they arise, in the course of the council’s methodical review of each chunk of the document. Piedmont-Smith said she wants the public to understand the “hot button” issues—like accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and duplexes—in the broader context of all of the city’s land use regulations.

Councilmember Chris Sturbaum advocated for an approach that deals with the most controversial items as soon as possible, scheduled in a way that makes clear to members of the public when they should show up to advocate on a particular issue. “It would be smart to hit the hard stuff right off the bat,” he said. Some amendments on ADUs and duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes had been handled by the plan commission early in the process, and after that, Sturbaum said, the commission had “coasted home.”

Sturbaum attended some of the plan commission’s hearings, and spoke from the podium during public commentary time, advocating against ADUs and plexes. Sturbaum said that the planning staff agreed with the approach he supported, even though they disagreed on the issues like ADUs and plexes:

“I think the fact that planning and I are on the same page is either a sign of the apocalypse, or maybe it means that we know what we’re talking about. We sat through those meetings.”

The interaction between Sturbaum and Piedmont-Smith at Friday’s work session got a little edgy, when Sturbaum cited his understanding of the plan commission’s process as a reason his view should prevail over Piedmont-Smith’s: “Just think, who do you want planning this all for you? Which councilmember do you think might understand how this process might work best for all of us, and then make a decision.”

Piedmont-Smith responded by saying, “I resent any insinuation than one of us nine [councilmembers] knows things better than the others.” Sturbaum’s rejoinder was: “Resent away!”

Part of the challenge faced by councilmembers is balancing the UDO against other possible legislation over the next 90 days. One significant piece of legislation mentioned on Friday was an ordinance to prevent predatory towing, which councilmembers Andy Ruff and Dorothy Granger are sponsoring. Council attorney/administrator Dan Sherman said on Friday the predatory towing draft ordinance was a “longer document.” City attorney Mike Rouker, who attended Friday’s work session, said he was aware of the legislation, but had not yet seen the text.

Councilmember Jim Sims said on Friday that the priority needed to be the UDO, even if there are other issues councilmembers want to address. He said he thought some kind of city council resolution concerning the white supremacist issues at the farmers market would be appropriate—but the UDO is the top priority.

One consensus that seemed to emerge is that it would be best, starting in mid-October, to designate additional weekdays, other than the council’s usual Wednesdays, for exclusive focus on the UDO. The additional weekdays could also be used just for non-UDO legislation, so that the decks would be clear Wednesdays for the UDO. Most councilmembers seemed supportive of holding meetings where the sole focus is on the UDO.

On one scenario batted around by councilmembers, amendments would be heard on Dec. 4, 11, and 18. City attorney Mike Rouker told them on Friday: “You’re going to have to do it sooner.”

Even if Piedmont-Smith’s preferred approach is adopted (longish presentations of chunks of the UDO over a few evenings), a consensus seemed to merge that the presentations need to be compressed inside of a couple of weeks, possibly doubling up meetings in a given week.

To avoid overlapping too much with the holiday season, the presentation of the document needs to wrap up  well before the end of October. That’s based on Sherman’s calculation of how long it would take to draft amendments, if the deadline for councilmembers to submit requests comes in the first week of November. On that scenario he came up with the week before Thanksgiving as the start of the council’s consideration of amendments. That seemed too late for some councilmembers.

Sherman also gave councilmembers a bit of historical context: The last time the council had undertaken a comprehensive repeal and replacement the zoning code with a unified development ordinance was 2006. It had required seven meetings that took a little over a month, from start to finish. It was pretty intense, Sherman said. More than one councilmember felt on Friday that more time was needed than a month.

Steve Volan suggested that during the UDO process, councilmembers adhere to time limits with their questions and comments, just like the public does. Volan summed up his general attitude about scheduling by saying, “We can absolutely control how much time we spend on this. It’s a matter of will.”