Contested Bloomington plan commission seat goes to Sandberg

On Wednesday at its first meeting of the year, Bloomington’s city council decided on a 5–4 vote that Susan Sandberg, not Isabel Piedmont-Smith, would serve as its appointment to the city plan commission in 2021.

It was a night when the council settled on a raft of appointments of its own members to various boards and commissions.

That included the appointment of Sandberg to the city plan commission. She’s served on the nine-member group for the last couple of years.

Sandberg’s appointment to the plan commission was the only one that required a vote of the council to settle the question of which councilmember would serve. A couple of other competing councilmember interests were resolved when one deferred to the other.

Voting for Sandberg to serve on plan commission were: Sandberg, Dave Rollo, Jim Sims, Sue Sgambelluri, and Ron Smith. Voting for Piedmont-Smith were: Piedmont-Smith, Steve Volan, Kate Rosenbarger, and Matt Flaherty.

The plan commission this year will be in the political spotlight probably by the end of January, when it takes up the question of zone map revisions and proposed text amendments to the UDO.

The potential for contested appointments was foreshadowed on Wednesday night by a remark from councilmember Steve Volan, who said before the appointment process began, “It’s my opinion that every seat should be voted on. I mean that no members should see the seat that they have had as being somehow theirs, until it’s voted on tonight.”

When newly-elected council president Jim Sims ticked through the list of positions to be appointed, he asked the councilmember who served last year if they wanted to continue, and then asked if anyone else was interested. In some cases, conflicting interests emerged, but were settled without a vote. Dave Rollo wanted to continue his service on the commission on sustainability, but bowed out, when Matt Flaherty also expressed an interest.

For the plan commission appointment, the two candidates campaigned by reading aloud prepared statements.

Piedmont-Smith served as the city council’s plan commission appointment before Sandberg.

Piedmont-Smith highlighted her hands-on approach to participation in the crafting of planning documents like the city’s comprehensive plan and the transportation plan. About the comprehensive plan, she said, “I authored or co-authored 79 amendments that were adopted by the council.”

Sandberg said that she and Piedmont-Smith took different approaches to their service on the plan commission. Responding to a question from Piedmont-Smith to clarify the difference, Sandberg said, “You are clearly very hands on from a technical standpoint. And I am more a larger, big-view thinker.” Sandberg added, “I weigh everything against the frame of what does the UDO [unified development ordinance] dictate for us to do? That is the job at the planning commission level.”

The city council has the final say on revisions to the unified development ordinance and the city zone map that will be recommended by the plan commission, probably by spring.

But the way those plan commission recommendations set the table for the city council makes a difference, especially for the zone map revisions. Under state statute, the city council can vote the plan commission’s recommended zone map up or down, but cannot amend it and adopt the amended version.

In late 2019, when the city council debated the overhaul of the UDO, Piedmont-Smith was philosophically in support of allowing plexes in places where they were not previously allowed. But she voted against them based on opposition from her District 5 constituents. Sandberg was squarely on the side of preserving areas where single-family dwellings are the only allowable uses. She voted against plexes.

The 5–4 vote on the plan commission appointment split the city council in the same way as the vote to establish several standing committees at the start of last year—with one exception. Sgambelluri joined Sandberg, Rollo, Sims, and Smith in supporting Sandberg as the plan commission appointment. Last year, Sgambelluri voted with the other four—Piedmont-Smith, Volan, Flaherty and Rosenbarger—to establish several new standing committees.

At Wednesday’s meeting, councilmembers postponed until Jan. 13 a vote on a resolution that would alter some of the standing committees.

Statement by Isabel Piedmont-Smith

Thank you. I would very much like to serve on the plan commission, because of my long-term experience in planning issues and my active participation in drafting the documents that underlie our planning decisions—that is, the comprehensive plan and the unified development ordinance.

Long before I served my first term on the city council, I was involved as a concerned citizen in the drafting of the first growth policies plan in 2002. Then, I was a member of the environmental commission for four years with one year as chair, and participated in the review of many development proposals, while advocating for local greenhouse gas reductions and environmental protections.

During my first term on council, I served on the plan commission for two and a half years, and I’ve served for two years during my second term as well. I’m now in my third term. I was very hands-on while the comprehensive plan was being discussed by the plan commission and the city council. I authored or co-authored 79 amendments that were adopted by the council. These amendments improved the plan by making it easier to follow, by strengthening our commitment to greenhouse gas reduction, and by encouraging transparency in decision making. When the comprehensive plan was translated into city ordinance through the UDO, I was also very engaged, bringing forward 33 amendments, mostly to improve environmental protections. When the transportation plan was added a few months later, I sponsored 24 amendments to help bring greater clarity to the document.

I always aim to make our public documents user-friendly for city staff, for elected officials and most of all for the public. The council land use committee, as you know, was formed in 2018, largely due to a few planned unit development petitions that took up an inordinate amount of council time the previous year. I have served on land use committee since its inception, and I chaired the committee last year in 2020. I think it would be quite helpful to have the council’s representative on the plan commission also serve on the land use committee—to help council colleagues understand the issues discussed at plan commission. If selected for the plan commission this year, I would like to continue to serve on the land use committee to serve this liaison role.

Another liaison position that is useful in planning the built environment for our community is the city planning commission’s nonvoting appointment to the county plan commission. That plan commission member is selected by the members of the planning commission annually. If I were to be selected by you, my council colleagues, to serve on the planning commission, I would volunteer to serve as liaison with the county planning commission. And then of course, that would be up to the whole plan commission to determine whether they wanted me to be that representative.

In any case, I plan to attend as many county plan commission meetings this year as I can—because affordable housing, urban sprawl and efficient land use are not issues that stop at city borders. And in particular this year, with annexation being back on the table, communication with our colleagues in county government in regard to planning will be essential. I expect the plan commission will take up an issue of very large importance to many Bloomington residents early this year. And that is, how to map the new higher-density R4 residential zoning district. I’ve been engaged in conversations with constituents, staff and housing experts on this issue. And I look forward to seeing the city staff’s revised proposal later this month.

I’m hopeful that we can increase residential density in our city without damaging the older neighborhoods closer to downtown and to campus. We need to take our time with this issue, evaluate existing research and focus on goals that we have in common.

Councilmember Sandberg has served the community well on the plan commission for the last three years. I served in 2016 and 2017. And frankly, I needed a break after the comp plan work, and I was happy to have my colleague take over. However, the council appointment to the planning commission is so important that it should not become the hegemony of one council member.

I realized just this week, like many of my colleagues, that a plan commission appointment should, according to statute, be coextensive with a member’s term on the council. That means that technically, one council member should have served January 2016 through December 2019. And a new council member should serve January 2020, through December 2023.

But according to state code, the council also has the right to appoint a different representative to the PC any given year. Councilmember Sandberg has served the last three years—so two years of her previous term and one year of her current term.

I now ask my colleagues to consider that it’s time for a change, and that I’m both interested in and well qualified for this position. Thank you very much.

Statement by Susan Sandberg

Councilmember Piedmont-Smith is certainly well qualified to take this position. But I think that she and I have two different approaches to our service on the plan commission.

Having served as a dedicated member of the plan commission during both the comprehensive plan and the unified development ordinance finalizations, I feel strongly about remaining this year, as the critically important zone maps are debated and recommended to council. The transition from visioning to developing code is not complete until the neighborhoods have an opportunity to weigh in with respect to housing, affordability, sustainability and livability.

The important balance between rental and owner-occupied properties will need to be struck to preserve the best of Bloomington neighborhoods while looking to meet the needs for new and affordable housing options. I have been a responsible and collegial representative in this community debate and hope to continue in the spirit of civility and civic participation.

With respect to the council representative also being a mandatory member of the land use committee. I have resisted that additional assignment, as I see it as duplicative. The service duties on the plan commission and the city council are separate, with the plan commission being the first body to review plan staff assessments and pass recommendations on to the council as a whole. As I have seen the land use committee as being yet another layer of review, I have been satisfied with other members of council having that opportunity, before it comes to all nine of us, to cast final votes on petitions for new developments and reuse.

On plan commission, the first task is to review projects through the frame of the criteria established in the UDO, including environmental integrity, housing needs, neighborhood stabilization, community benefit, transportation and traffic impacts, and many other code considerations. The planning and transportation staff and the environmental commission evaluate projects before they come to the plan commission for further review. We examine if the project is appropriate to code or are there issues that need further work before the development is worthy of recommendation to council. Does the project warrant a green light or is it rejected due to not meeting established criteria?

At the council level we can request additional conditions and make recommendations before a project is given final approval. As we are all in the first year of the UDO being adopted, continuity in decision making in this transitional year is a positive in my favor. As an at-large council representative, I share the perspective of looking at development issues in the city from a big-picture view. I attend the plan commission meetings and work sessions regularly with an open mind to hearing all sides from the staff, the petitioners, and the public as projects come forward.

I have also been appointed as a member of the BZA [board of zoning appeals]—another opportunity for me to hone my decision making skills with respect to variances that may not fall neatly within the established UDO. This also gives me a perspective on areas where the UDO may need to be tweaked in the future, to more aptly meet the needs of property owners and petitioners in service to the wider Bloomington community.

I thank you for your thoughtful consideration. I have thoroughly enjoyed service on the plan commission. It is a big job, and would appreciate your ongoing support of my dedicated efforts in the coming year as zoning codes are finalized. With this new information about it being something that you would need to do for your entire term, I would also be willing to consider it next year. But taking a look at where things may stand with respect to the zone maps might also actually defer. But that of course, is a matter left entirely up to you. Thank you, my colleagues.