Duplexes OK’d as by-right use for basic residential districts in recs by Bloomington plan commission

On a 5–4 vote taken Monday night, Bloomington’s plan commission changed its recommendation on duplexes in the R1, R2, R3, and R4 zoning districts—from conditional use to permitted (by-right) use.

It’s part of a proposed ordinance that will eventually wind up in front of the city council.

Also on Monday, plan commissioners voted 6–3 to remove from their recommended ordinance a proposed two-year buffering requirement for duplexes. Under the buffering requirement, if a duplex received a certificate of zoning compliance (CZC) in R1, R2, R3, or R4, then any other parcel within a 150-foot buffer of the duplex would be prevented for two years from getting a CZC for construction of a duplex.

After the ordinance was amended on Monday night, no vote was taken by the plan commission on the ordinance as amended. That vote could come at a meeting on Thursday (April 1), possibly after consideration of another amendment.

The votes on the two successful amendments followed the plan commission’s consideration of an amendment that was defeated on a 1–8 tally. The defeated amendment would have changed the commission’s recommendation on duplexes in the R1, R2, and R3 zoning districts, from conditional use to disallowed use.

The defeated amendment’s sole voice of support came from its sponsor, Susan Sandberg, who is the city council’s representative to the plan commission.

The ordinance considered by the plan commission on Monday changes the way the city’s unified development ordinance handles duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes. It’s part of a 10-ordinance package proposed by the city’s planning staff, which would revise the citywide zoning map and the text of the UDO. A public outreach effort on the proposal was conducted in late 2020.

After the ordinance on plexes gets a vote, the 10th and final ordinance the plan commission will handle is the revised citywide zoning map, which will probably get at least a first look from the plan commission at its Thursday meeting.

The city’s current unified development ordinance (UDO) does not allow duplexes in R1 (residential large lot), R2 (residential medium lot) and R3 (residential small lot). The new UDO’s disallowance of duplexes in R1, R2, and R3, was the outcome of a city council decision made in November 2019.

The planning staff’s proposal was for the plan commission to recommend a change for duplexes in R1, R2 and R3—from disallowed use to a conditional use.

The changes involve the “Allowed Use Table” in the UDO. For any use in a zoning district that’s described in the UDO, there are two basic possibilities: allowed or disallowed. If a use is disallowed, then the corresponding cell in the table is blank.

If a use is allowed, then there are two other specific possibilities. One possibility is that the use is permitted—denoted with a “P” in a table cell. That’s the allowed use that is also sometimes called “by right.”

The other kind of allowed use is conditional—denoted with a “C” in a table cell. In order to put the land to a conditional use, it requires application to and approval by the board of zoning appeals (BZA).

Monday’s plan commission session was the second night of deliberations on the ordinance about plexes. On Thursday last week (March 25), the plan commission heard about three hours of public commentary on Sandberg’s proposed amendment. They set up Monday’s meeting for their own comments and a vote, which turned out 1–8.

The vote to change duplexes to permitted (by-right) use nearly didn’t take place at all, based on some pre-deliberative indications that it would fail.

At the start of the plan commission’s deliberations on Sandberg’s amendment that would have disallowed duplexes, president Brad Wisler asked his colleagues to share their thoughts on the other amendments that could be considered. The one that changed duplexes from conditional uses to permitted (by-right) uses was from commissioner Jillian Kinzie. Another one was from Wisler, which removed the two-year 150-foot buffering restrictions on duplexes.

Wisler was hoping to gauge whether there was enough interest among commissioners in passing those amendments, before investing the time to deliberate on them.

That commentary resulted in just four clear indications of support for changing duplexes to a permitted (by-right) use—from Wisler, Kinzie, Flavia Burrell, and Chris Cockerham. Pretty clear indications of opposition came from Sandberg, Israel Herrera, Beth Cate, and Andrew Cibor.

Commissioner Karin St. John expressed some ambivalence. About Sandberg’s amendment to disallow conditional use, she said, “I’ve learned a lot from members of the public that have shared their concerns and thoughts and ideas. It’s really been educational. I’m really torn on how to vote on this, on voting to remove the conditional use, that’s been proposed by the city.”

About Kinzie’s amendment changing duplexes from conditional use to permitted (by-right) use, St. John said, “My thoughts on the amendment for by-right will kind of depend on how [Sandberg’s] amendment goes.”

Wisler sized up the commentary like this: “If my tallying is correct, it sounds to me like there were probably four in favor of [Kinzie’s amendment] and five opposed.” About the outcome of the informal commentary, Kinzie said, “I was hoping for something a little more definitive.”

Kinzie weighed whether even to move her amendment for consideration. In the end she figured she would move her amendment, knowing that it might die for the lack of a second.

After she made her motion, Wisler asked if there was a seconding motion. A full 7 seconds elapsed, before Wisler said, “Going once…Going twice…” Around 12 seconds after Wisler asked for a second, Cockerham finally said, “I will second that motion.”

When it came time to vote, St. John, who had expressed ambivalence, said she was convinced by the public process of hearing debate on the amendment to vote for permitted (by-right) use instead of conditional use for duplexes.

St. John pointed to the legal possibility she’d heard described of owning half a duplex, or all of it, but using the other half as rental income to pay the mortgage.

St. John also responded to some of the public commentary she heard: “I don’t buy the argument that renters don’t care about our community. I used to be a renter and I’m still here, and I’m going to my 40th year in Bloomington. I mean renters really care about this community. They just are renting because they don’t have the money to buy property.”

St. John continued her remarks, “So I am going to say the public process works here, because I was going to vote conditional, but I actually am going to vote in favor of [permitted] because I do support this idea of increasing the housing stock.”

St. John wrapped up by saying, “For me it’s just, Go big or go home—like if we’re gonna do it, let’s do it. As I said earlier, the UDO is living and breathing and we can change this. But if we’re going to do it, let’s give it our all and see if it works.”

St. John’s vote, added those from Wisler, Kinzie, Burrell, and Cockerham made five votes in favor. Dissenting were Sandberg, Herrera, Cate, and Cibor.

The vote on the amendment that struck the two-year 150-foot buffer was 6–3, with Sandberg, Herrera, and Cibor dissenting.

Cate might bring forward an amendment for Thursday’s session that would take a different approach to limiting duplexes. Instead of a two-year 150-foot buffer, the idea would be to impose a numerical cap for certain areas.