On a unanimous vote taken at their regular Wednesday meeting, the three Monroe County commissioners turned down a proposal to redevelop a 4-acre parcel just south of the current Bloomington city limits, with five residential and commercial buildings.
The conceptual plans in the meeting information packet call for 31 new residences—15 in one building, five in each of three other buildings and one in a fifth building. The petition, brought by Blind Squirrels, LLC, would have constructed attached townhomes, multi-family residences, and commercial space.
Called “Clear Creek Urban,” the proposal was in front of the commissioners, because it was a proposed rezone from different types of residential zoning districts, and a planned unit development (PUD), to a new PUD. A PUD is a kind of custom zoning created to suit unique characteristics of a site.
When she explained her vote against the proposal, Julie Thomas, president of the county board of commissioners, first said that she thinks some kind of development for the parcel is needed. Thomas praised the creativity of the proposal, which was presented by Tamby Wikle-Cassady for Blind Squirrels.
Thomas said, “It’s nice to imagine a sort of a community feel that would have emerged from this—sort of like when you go through Unionville or Harrodsburg or other communities that we have.” Thomas added, “The building design is great. The ability to adapt and to make changes has been really phenomenal. And I want to thank Ms. Cassady for that.”
The problem for Thomas was the project’s density. “While I support the idea of having mixed use, I just think that this is too much density for the county…The first building is going to be very tall [three stories], especially compared to the immediate surrounding community,” Thomas said.
When the plan commission reviewed the project, Thomas was one of three commissioners who voted against it. It was forwarded by the plan commission to the county board of commissioners on a 6–3 tally.
The county planning staff’s recommendation of denial was a factor in Thomas’s decision on Wednesday.
Thomas said, “I give great credence to the planning staff who have worked with this petitioner and worked with the plan commission on all of this, and the fact that they recommend denial—based on zoning subdivision regulations, such as density dimension build, bulk use, required improvements and construction and design standards.”
For Thomas it came down to the difference between urban and rural: “We are the county. We are not the city.”
If the city of Bloomington’s restarted annexation plans go through, the parcel where the project is proposed will be a part of the city by 2024.
Wikle-Cassady told The Square Beacon on Thursday that she is not thinking she wants to wait that long and try to get the same project approved under Bloomington’s planning process. She said, “I hope that a new vision comes to me, that will be something that may have some similarities to the plan that I submitted.”
She added, “Today, I’m trying to get that vision. And I would prefer to bring it forward sooner rather than later, simply because I’ve had this property for four years already.” The property is narrow, north-to-south, which makes it an odd-shaped parcel to develop, she said.
The Clear Creek area was part of the two-mile fringe that was always talked about as potentially being annexed, Wikle-Cassady said. That expectation has meant over the years that some of the area “just gets left behind, she said, and it leads people to think, “maybe we won’t do this or that.”
So Wikle-Cassady is not looking to wait for annexation. “At some point people should pay attention to this really charming area, and the people that live there.”
She grew up in the area, she said, and the property has been “unsightly” since her childhood. She described how there was a concrete business located there, where the big trucks would come back from delivering a load, and would just dump the leftovers.
Wikle-Cassady told county commissioners on Wednesday that the new cluster of buildings would make for a kind of “neighborhood center” for the Clear Creek community.
“It provides apartments in a geographic area where they’re sorely needed,” she said. Wikle-Cassady added, “Try and send your kid to Clear Creek Elementary and find an apartment to live in. It’s just not out there.”
Wikle-Cassady continued, “Having these additional homes available…allows [workers] to live here in Monroe County instead of commuting from Owen County, Greene County and other places where they’re choosing to go right now, because they just can’t find housing in their price range.”
During public commentary, former Monroe County plan commissioner Dave Warren expressed support for the project by connecting the proposal to a recent resolution approved by the commissioners. Warren began, “I’d like to thank the commissioners for recently unanimously passing the county’s housing-as-a-human rights resolution.”
Warren continued, “Today, the commissioners have an opportunity to affirm the intent of that resolution by approving this PUD petition that would bring some much needed housing diversity to the Clear Creek area.”
Speaking in opposition to the project was current president of the county plan commission, Margaret Clements. She said, “We have built enough multifamily housing. If we really do care about the workforce and about the changing nature of our community and the changing demands for workers in our community,… we should not build this.”
Clements added, “We should not build this, especially on sensitive land with a bunch of [single-family houses] around it. Clements added, “I drive by buildings all over town where this mixed-use, residential multifamily housing has been built, and the bottom floors are empty.”
Clements told the county commissioners: “That idea has failed. So let’s just take a look at it, build more single-family housing, meet the needs of your true constituents.”
Clements voted against the project when it was in front of the county plan commission.
The two other county commissioners, Penny Githens and Lee Jones, indicated their concerns about the project early in the meeting.
Jones started with praise: “I see a lot about this to really like. I’m very pleased that it’s a local developer who clearly cares a lot about the area.” The current condition of the property ”not very acceptable at all,” Jones said.
Still, Jones said, “I just feel that a bit too much is being packed into this.”
Githens said, “I feel that this is too dense.” She said she thinks more parking spaces would be needed for the kind of commercial uses that are proposed in the project.
Also weighing in during public commentary on Wednesday was another county plan commission member, Trohn Enright-Randolph, who voted for the project as a member of that group. On Wednesday, Enright-Randolph said he was not speaking as a plan commission member. Instead, he spoke as “the guy that likes to run on the B-Line to the rail trail down, up Clear Creek, sometimes on the Limestone Greenway.”
Enright-Randolph encouraged the county commissioners not to vote the project down, but rather to express their concerns in the form of various conditions, then send the proposal back to the plan commission.
After the unanimous vote against Clear Creek Urban, Enright-Randolph and the rest of the plan commissioners could be looking at a fresh proposal from Blind Squirrels, as Wikle-Cassady put it, “sooner rather than later.”