UDO Update: Amendments on bigger signs, taller fences OK’d

Bloomington’s city council handled a half dozen more amendments to the update of its unified development ordinance on Wednesday night, approving four out of six.

Three of the approved amendments relax restrictions on large, generally flattish objects: solar panels, fences, and signs. The other amendment approved by the council prohibits “eyebrow” street designs.

Getting support from only one other councilmember besides its sponsor, Chris Sturbaum, was an amendment that would have added structures that have “contributing” status in historic districts to those that are subject to a demolition delay if someone proposes a partial demolition.

The final amendment that the council could have considered was withdrawn. It would have prohibited fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides within a drainage easement. That would have made it a stronger requirement than state law, which the city can’t do, according to its sponsor, councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith.

At Wednesday’s meeting the council voted to add an additional meeting to its calendar for Dec. 3, to handle around 20 additional UDO amendments that were already submitted by the council’s first deadline in early November.

Already on the council’s schedule are meetings for Dec. 10, Dec. 12 and Dec. 17, with a final vote on the amended UDO possible on Dec. 18.

Solar panels: no screening required

The first of the amendments heard Wednesday night was one that removed a condition for the omission of screening for solar panels—both ground-mounted and roof-mounted panels. The proposed UDO made the omission of screen contingent on “clearly demonstrat[ing] that required screening will clearly restrict their efficient operation.”

Councilmember Chris Sturbaum asked why it is not possible to hit both an aesthetic target and a sustainability target.

Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith, who sponsored the amendment, told Sturbaum that screening is an added expense and an added burden: “We’re talking about the end of the climate as we know it,” she said. The public good of solar panels outweighs the whatever aesthetic concerns there might be, Piedmont-Smith said.

Sturbaum abstained from the vote, which meant that the amendment got six votes, one more than it needed, on the nine-member council. At that point in the meeting, neither Andy Ruff nor Allison Chopra had arrived.

Fences: Make them 12 feet tall to protect a food garden from deer

Sponsored by Piedmont-Smith at the request of the city’s environmental commission was an amendment to allow fences up to 12 feet tall, instead of just 8 feet, for residential lots, if the fences serve the purpose of protecting food from being eaten by deer. Above five feet, such a fence has to use “open construction,” which means that it uses “voids and solids via latticework or other similar techniques.”

The first focus of debate was the addition of some language to clarify that fences weren’t allowed just to protect flowers from being eaten by deer, but rather to protect food that’s being grown.

The idea was met with skepticism by Steve Volan who asked Piedmont-Smith if maintaining a single potted tomato plant would be sufficient to qualify for a 12-foot fence. “Go for it,” was her response. Why bother with the restriction to just those fences that protect food, if the restriction could be met so easily, wondered Volan?

“Because it’s the principle of the matter, Mr. Volan,” replied Piedmont Smith. She added, “I don’t think people will put in one tomato plant to get around this.”

Countering Piedmont-Smith, Allison Chopra thought people might build a fence without following the intended purpose of protecting food. Chopra drew a parallel to another part of the city code that prohibits backyard bonfires. She said she enjoyed having an open fire in her backyard, and makes sure she always has a “morsel” of food nearby so that it qualifies for the exception in the code. Here’s the ordinance to which she was referring:

18.16.020 – Permit required.
No person shall kindle or maintain any bonfire or open burning, or authorize any such fire to be kindled or maintained within the city limits without permit or proper authorization from the fire chief. During construction or demolition of buildings or structures, no waste materials or rubbish shall be disposed of by burning on the premises or in the immediate vicinity without having obtained a permit or proper authorization. Any applicant for an open burning permit shall demonstrate that he/she is in legal control of the lot or parcel of land on which the burning is to be done.

Exception: These restrictions do not prohibit outdoor fires in pits or grills used solely for the preparation of food.

The clarification of the language on fence heights, to make clear that 12-foot fences are allowed only for protection of food gardens, was approved, as was the amendment to the UDO. Dissenting on the 8–1 vote was Chopra.

Bigger projection signs OK

An amendment sponsored by Steve Volan allowed for bigger projection signs in the multi-use commercial district. The amendment increased the allowable area of such signs from 20 to 54 square feet and the amount by which they can stick out from a building from 3 to 8 feet.

Volan said he wanted the kinds of signs that were once common in the downtown area to conform with zoning code. He highlighted the example of the Buskirk-Chumley “Indiana” bone-shaped sign as one that would be made legal. Allison Chopra corrected the usage of “legal,” saying that the sign was already legal but that it was “non-conforming.”

Volan said that as a former downtown merchant, he had wished for a way to create a sign with greater potential for catching a customer’s eye, which such projection signs would have provided.

The first order of business for the council on the amendment was to revise it by removing a prohibition of projection signs in the courthouse square overlay. Volan had intended to do that, but as it was originally submitted, the amendment left the prohibition intact.

Chris Sturbaum, who was supportive of the amendment gave assurances at a couple of points that the historic preservation commission, on which he serves, would have to review all signs.

Andy Ruff said he would generally support an effort that embraced nostalgia or throwback to an earlier time.

The two votes, on the amendment to the amendment and the amendment itself, fell along the same 5–4 lines. Those voting in favor of it felt that such signs would add value and character to the area, which extends from the courthouse square north and south along the College and Walnut corridors.

Isabel Piedmont-Smith thought that aesthetically “this could be a disaster.” She asked what would happen if there were 15 such signs in one block. “It’s a bad idea,” she said and would not contribute to the character of downtown. When she looked at the vintage 1963 photo that Volan had provided to illustrate the kind of signs that would once again be allowed, her reaction was: “Thank goodness we don’t have that anymore.”

Dorothy Granger thought such signs would add visual clutter. Rollo said that an “arms race” could be started once a single merchant installs a sign.

Allison Chopra warned that the historic preservation commission could be asked to approve a large projection sign that reads, “Jesus Saves. Baby-killer-murderers use abortions!” The city would just have to allow it, she said. She called the idea that drivers will slow down to look at signs “ridiculous.” People aren’t slowing down for scooter riders, she said, so they’re surely are not going to slow down for a sign.

At one point it appeared that the amendment might be withdrawn for some fine-tuning, but the approach that Volan wound up taking was to let it be put to a vote, with the idea that a future “technical amendment” could address any problems. Such “technical amendments” have a deadline of Nov. 25 for submission.

Eyebrows plucked from permitted designs

Sponsored by Isabel Piedmont-Smith was an amendment that removed “eyebrows” as a possible street design. They’re kind a miniature cul de sac.

The amendment that Piedmont-Smith submitted called “eyebrows” an “unnecessary strip of impermeable surface, adding additional driving lanes.” They also push houses
away from through streets, which gives motorists a perception of greater open space causing them to drive faster.

The amendment didn’t get pushback from other councilmembers and was adopted unanimously.

Partial demolition of contributing structures triggers demolition delay?

Sponsored by Chris Sturbaum was an amendment that would have added structures that have “contributing” status in historic districts to those that are subject to a demolition delay, if someone proposes a partial demolition. Partial demolitions of “notable” or “outstanding” structures already triggers a demolition delay. A demolition delay is a period during which the city’s historic preservation commission (HPC) has a chance to give the structure one final review.

In the UDO draft, a complete demolition of a “contributing” structure already triggers a demolition delay. The city’s development services manager, Jackie Scanlan, clarified that the recently demolished house on 7th Street would not have been treated differently under Sturbaum’s amendment.

The 7th Street house was a contributing structure that was subject to a demolition delay, because it was proposed for complete demolition. The owners did not wait for city council action on the HPC recommendation that it be given historic designation, and are now facing an $83,500 fine for that, which the owners have appealed.

Other councilmembers were persuaded against supporting the amendment because the staff member supporting the HPC, Conor Herterich, was opposed to it. It would mean a considerable amount of additional work—there are hundreds of “contributing” structures in the city—and would require him to apply a subjective standard.

Councilmember Jim Sims objected to Sturbaum’s apparent implication that Herterich was opposed to the amendment only because he was trying to avoid work.

Councilmembers generally expressed frustration that they did not grasp how the amendment was supposed to function. Steve Volan wound up abstaining from the vote, apparently on those grounds.

Sturbaum was frustrated at the end of the council’s two rounds of comments that the council’s president, Dave Rollo, would not give him an additional chance to explain how the amendment worked.

When the roll call came, Sturbaum said he wanted to protest the fact that he was not given an additional chance to explain the amendment. More than one of his colleagues told him to just go ahead and vote.

Roll Call Voting Table for Nov. 20, 2019

Topic Sturbaum Granger Chopra Rollo Piedmont-Smith Volan Ruff Sandberg Sims
Am 06: no screen needed for solar
pass yes absent yes yes yes absent yes yes
Amend to Am 33: just food gardens yes yes yes yes yes yes absent yes yes
Am 33 as amended: taller fences OK yes yes no yes yes yes yes yes yes
Amend to Am 34: courthouse overlay OK yes no no no no yes yes yes yes
Am 34 as amended: big signs OK yes no no no no yes yes yes yes
Am 37: eyebrows not allowed yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes
Am 38: demo delay for contrib struc yes no no no no pass no yes no
Add Dec. 3 mtg to handle UDO yes yes no yes yes yes yes yes yes