On 9–0 vote Bloomington dials down duplexes from permitted to conditional use

Duplexes will not be a permitted (by-right) use in Bloomington’s central residential districts. But they will still be allowed, as a conditional use.

That’s the outcome of Wednesday’s continuation of a city council special session that started on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, councilmembers voted unanimously to amend Ordinance 21-23. As recommended to them by the city’s plan commission, the new law would have established duplexes as permitted (by-right) use in R1 (Residential Large Lot), R2 (Residential Medium Lot), and R3 (Residential Small Lot) districts.

In the city’s current UDO (unified development ordinance) duplexes are not allowed in those districts.

The 9–0 vote to amend Ordinance 21-23 restored to conditional use the proposed status of duplexes in R1, R2, and R3. That had been the basic recommendation of the city’s planning staff.

The granting of a conditional use permit will require a hearing in front of the board of zoning appeals.

On Tuesday, the council had considered an amendment that would have changed the status of duplexes in the R-districts to disallowed, but it failed on a 4–5 tally.

Among Wednesday’s roughly 40 public commenters and councilmembers alike, the conditional use amendment that was approved on Wednesday was generally considered as a kind of compromise position.

But the negotiations on some additional restrictions to Ordinance 21-23 are not yet done.

Based on council deliberations on Wednesday, three additional amendments will be considered, when the same special meeting continues on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

As councilmember Susan Sandberg put it, the additional amendments will add some “teeth” to the restrictions on duplexes in the ordinance. Two of them are already drafted, numbered Amendment 03 and Amendment 04.

Amendment 03 would add a requirement that within a 150-foot buffer of a property where a conditional use permit has been issued, no additional duplexes would be allowed. The amendment would also impose a cap of 10 duplexes per year.

The idea of a buffer had been included in the version of Ordinance 21-23 that had been recommended by planning staff to the plan commission. But the staff’s proposal was that inside a 150-foot buffer, additional duplexes would be prevented for just two years.

As spelled out in Amendment 03, which is sponsored by Sandberg and Dave Rollo, the inside-the-buffer prohibition of additional duplex construction does not appear to expire after two years.

Amendment 04 puts a limit to the number of bedrooms in a duplex unit at one, with three allowed (for a total of six) only if affordability requirements are met.

One way to meet the affordability requirements would be to make both sides of the duplex permanently income-restricted for those earning below 120 percent of the HUD area median income (AMI). The other way to meet the affordability requirements would be to make one of the duplex units permanently income-restricted for those earning below 80 percent of the AMI.

An additional amendment, likely to be numbered as Amendment 05, had on Wednesday not been drafted in final form by Sandberg and Rollo, but will focus on traffic and parking issues.

On Wednesday, most public commenters who supported duplexes as a by-right use said that the change to conditional use was a “good compromise.” Jessika Griffin said, “It’s a compromise that I personally would be fine with.” Griffin also encouraged the council to “think deeply about why duplexes would be a conditional use, but not single family homes.”

Most public commenters who were opposed to allowing duplexes in any way stated a preference for conditional use over by-right use, even if that preference was mild. Victoria Witte said, “My feeling about conditional [use] is that it’s better than nothing.”

A strong sentiment among commenters who spoke against allowing duplexes in any way, was that conditional use was not much of a compromise. That’s based on the idea that approval of a conditional use permit is assured, if the proposal meets code, even if it is carefully reviewed by the board of zoning appeals (BZA). The criteria the BZA has to use to review a conditional use permit are recorded in the city’s unified development ordinance (UDO).

The amendment changing duplexes from by-right to conditional use was co-sponsored by Isabel Piedmont-Smith and Jim Sims. Piedmont-Smith said, “It presents a compromise by allowing some carefully reviewed duplexes in residential neighborhoods.”

Piedmont-Smith pointed out that the amendment also requires a pre-submittal neighborhood meeting.

Rollo, who co-sponsored the failed amendment that would have disallowed duplexes, was skeptical that the neighborhood meeting could have an impact on the outcome of a conditional use permit application.

Rollo’s skepticism was drawn out in a back-and-forth with the city’s development services manager, Jackie Scanlan.

After hearing Scanlan’s description of the way such meetings typically unfold, Rollo ventured, “So it’s a courtesy.” Scanlan replied, “Well, it would be a requirement in this case, but yes.” Rollo concluded, “But it’s a requirement for courtesy. So we’re legislating courtesy. Thank you, appreciate it.”

Jim Sims, who was co-sponsor of Wednesday’s unanimously approved amendment, agreed with Piedmont-Smith’s characterization of the change as a compromise. He added, “I will go further to say that this amendment represents, to me, a middle ground, which is the same as compromise between the two options that we were faced with, moving forward.”

The additional “teeth” amendments will likely get support from the four councilmembers who did not prevail in their vote on Tuesday to disallow duplexes. One of the four, Sue Sgambelluri, on Wednesday called the conditional use hearing in front of the board of zoning appeals “a minor speed bump.” She added, “And I don’t think it would adequately respond to the widespread concerns we’ve had for months now. And it wouldn’t provide the controls that we need.”

But the additional amendments would need to pick up a fifth vote from one of the five councilmembers who voted for duplexes on Tuesday—Piedmont-Smith, Sims, Steve Volan, Kate Rosenbarger or Matt Flaherty.

On Wednesday, Flaherty laid out why he thinks conditional use for duplexes already reflects a significant compromise. “[Amendment 02] will represent a good and meaningful compromise among diverse community perspectives, in my view,” Flaherty said.

One kind of compromise is that only duplexes are being considered, Flaherty said, not additional types of “missing middle” housing. “Tonight, we’re only talking about duplexes, because that was a significant compromise that the administration brought based on community feedback.” Flaherty called duplexes “the smallest and most incremental step towards more diverse housing options”

The change to conditional use—which requires public notice, a neighborhood meeting, a public hearing, and a good-faith conversation about neighbor concerns—is another significant compromise, Flaherty said.

Flaherty also pointed to use-specific standards that apply only to duplexes, but not to single-family houses. Flaherty concluded, “The months-long process that got us to this point has been an exercise in compromise.”