Bloomington design element requirements for residential buildings could be abolished by state legislature

A state house bill that could have a potential impact on Bloomington’s zoning code is making its way through the state house.

The mage is from an elevation from The Standard at Bloomington, a 1,000-bed student-oriented housing development that got site plan approval from the city plan commission in early February, 2021.  EIFS (Exterior Insulation Finishing System) is not allowed for residential use in some Bloomington zoning districts, but is allowed in others. Bloomington’s regulation of EIFS would be affected by HB 1114.

In early February, on an 8–5 vote, HB 1114 was passed out of the committee on government and regulatory reform.

The key sentence of HB 1114 states: “A municipality shall not regulate design elements of residential structures.”

Applying the bill’s definition of “design elements” would have an impact on the kind of design elements that appear in Bloomington’s unified development ordinance (UDO)

It would mean Bloomington could not enforce some aspects of its basic local law on land use.

If it is passed, HB 1114 could affect the upcoming debate by Bloomington’s plan commission, followed by the city council, on revisions to the citywide zoning map and amendments to its text ordinance.

HB 1114 would still need to achieve a majority in a floor vote in the house, and approval by the state senate, to become state law.

State representative Matt Pierce (D), responded to a question about the bill at a legislative update on Saturday, hosted by the League of Women Voters Bloomington-Monroe and the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.

Pierce said it might have hit a “snag” because it may have encountered some opposition in the Republican caucus.

Speaking at the same legislative update on Saturday state representative Jeff Ellington (R) indicated the bill is not dead, “First to the middle of the week, there’ll probably be, I heard, maybe some amendments to make it a little less aggressive.”

Many of those who oppose the bill, like Pierce, see it as an encroachment on local government control. Those who support it, like Ellington, say it will allow more affordable housing to be built.

How could HB 1114 affect Bloomington’s upcoming local rezoning debate?

Even on the less-dense proposal for Bloomington UDO amendments that was released by planning staff on Friday, duplexes would be added as conditional uses in residential areas that do not currently allow them.

An appeal to UDO regulations on design elements is one way supporters of duplexes have sought to allay concerns about the effect of duplexes on existing older neighborhoods. Duplexes are now constrained by the UDO’s design element standards for various elements—like roof pitch, front porch width and depth, front building setback and vehicle parking access.

Under Bloomington’s UDO, those design elements for a duplex have to be similar to “the majority of existing single-family or duplex structures on the same block face on which it is located.”

That kind of argument would not appear to be possible if HB 1114 were enacted.

That’s because the definition of design elements in HB 1114 includes: exterior building color; type or style of exterior cladding material; style or material of roof structures, roof pitches, or porches; exterior nonstructural architectural ornamentation; location, design, placement, or architectural styling of windows and doors, including garage doors and garage structures; the number and types of rooms; and the minimum square footage of a structure.

At Saturday’s legislative update, the commentary was similar to remarks made on both sides of the issue at the house committee hearing in early February. The arguments ran along the lines of local control and affordable housing.

Pierce described his opposition to the bill in terms of local government control: “If people know me, I’m a pretty strong proponent of local control. And this is an example of where not every community is the same.”

He continued: “Whether you like it or not, when you live in urban areas, the things that happen on the property nextdoor to you can impact your property values.”

That’s why local governments try to use planning and zoning codes to try to make sure things don’t happen next door to property that might have negative impacts on the property that’s already there, Pierce said. Pierce concluded, “This bill would get in the way of that. So I would not support it.”

On Saturday, state senator Shelli Yoder (D) echoed Pierce’s remarks about local control. She cautioned that during the current legislative session, the issue of local control is important in other topic areas besides residential design standards, like emergency health orders. Yoder said, “We need to leave that control up to local communities to be able to decide what those needs are. So watch out for that coming over to the health side very soon.”

At the committee hearing in early February, Jenna Knepper, representing AIM, supported local control. AIM is Accelerate Indiana Municipalities, formerly known as the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns.

Knepper said about HB 1114: “The bill would negatively impact municipalities’ ability to ensure that high-quality sustainable housing is being built in their communities.” She continued, “The standards established at the local level are very important to quality of place in communities throughout Indiana. Not only will this impact future ordinances, but it also voids any current rules, ordinances or regulations.”

Knepper added, “This bill essentially removes the ability for communities to negotiate design standards with developers and removes an opportunity for constituents to weigh in at the local level. Local units of government want to be partners in the affordable housing conversation.”

At the committee hearing in early February, the bill’s sponsor, Doug Miller (R) described how a similar bill has been in the works before this year. Over the summer he’d worked on it for this session, Miller said.

“I believe this year, House Bill 1114 absolutely strikes a balance between local control and restoring our private property rights, which is critical in maintaining our hard earned reputation as being one of the most affordable housing markets in the country,” Miller said.

Miller talked about the additional cost that design standards could mean for building a home, which the pandemic had made more important than ever before, Miller said. “Having a home has likely never been more important than it was during the pandemic and continues to be when we’re all staying home, and using our homes in different ways.” Miller added, “Our homes are now our workplaces, our social gathering places, and places that we’re actually vacationing at.”

At Saturday’s legislative update, Ellington echoed the kind of affordable housing arguments that Miller made during the committee hearing. Local governments are making design regulations more restrictive, which leads to a higher cost, just to achieve a particular look, Ellington said.

On Saturday, representative Peggy Mayfield (R), characterized the application of design standards as regulating subjective issues. “It’s all about aesthetics,” Mayfield said. “You have too much negative space on the front side of your house. You need more windows. We want a steeper roof. We don’t want you to paint it this color. We only want garages that load from the side or the back.”

One item in the list that Mayfield said she does not think is an aesthetic issue is minimum square footage. She has expressed her concern about that, Mayfield said. “I don’t necessarily think [square footage] is an aesthetic feature,” she said.

During the house committee hearing, Gina Leckron, state director for Habitat for Humanity of Indiana, spoke in favor of HB 1114. She described how Habitat builds houses in partnership with the owners, who purchase them from Habitat with a 0-percent loan, for which Habitat is the lender.

Leckron described how in Bloomington, when the COVID-19 crisis hit, Habitat saw its portfolio’s 2-to-3-percent delinquency rate rise to about 70 percent. “Most of the people that we house are in the service industry,” she said.

The service industry was hit harder by the pandemic than other sectors of the economy, especially at the start.

What’s the difference in cost for a Habitat house? If the nonprofit has to use Hardie Board siding, versus vinyl, and a higher roof pitch than is volunteer-friendly to build, that could translate into a $15,000 increase to the exterior of a house, Leckron said. That is $50 per month more for a zero-interest loan, Leckron said.

Leckron added, “For us, $50 a month in the middle of a pandemic is the difference between a family going to the food bank, or not having to.”

The LWV and Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce will be hosting additional updates from state legislators in March and April.

Progress on HB 1114 can be tracked on the General Assembly’s website.

At Saturday’s legislative update, Pierce said the half-way point in this year’s legislative session is approaching. All the bills have to be voted out of committee by Feb. 16. All the bills have to be passed out of the house by February 22.

As bills fail to hit their scheduling deadlines, they will be grayed on on the master list of bills for the session.