A rezone petition for a 44-acre piece of land south of Bloomington’s current boundaries was denied on a unanimous vote of the three Monroe County commissioners at their regular Wednesday meeting.
The rezoning, from estate residential (RE1) to medium density residential (MR), would have allowed around 125 single-family houses to be built there, about three times as many as the roughly 40 that would be possible under the current zoning.
Part of the pitch from developers Donnie Adkins and Kevin Schmidt was that the denser development would allow for the houses to be priced around $300,000 to $400,000. That’s lower than the $700,000 or more that houses built under current zoning would likely cost, they said. The site is currently largely open, the site of the former Robertson farm.
Called The Trails at Robertson Farm, the planned development was proposed for the acreage that’s nestled in the northwest intersection of the of the B-Line Trail and the Clear Creek Trail.
The Trails was planned to include various amenities, including a dog park and a community garden. But the question in front of the commissioners was a rezone, not a site plan.
Earlier this year, commissioners had denied the rezone petitions for two projects to allow higher residential density in the same general vicinity as The Trails proposal: Southern Meadows and Clear Creek Urban.
It was not expected that commissioners would come to a different conclusion on Wednesday than they did previously for Southern Meadows and Clear Creek Urban. Opposition to the requested rezone was considerable, as measured by the emails and postcards received by commissioners and included in the meeting information packet.
Still, the plan staff’s recommendation for approval of the rezone might have given the petition a glimmer of hope.
In explaining her vote against the rezone, president of the board of commissioners, Julie Thomas, said, “No matter what we do, people are going to be angry with us, they’re going to be mad at us.” Thomas added, “This is what we signed up for. And it’s tough to make these decisions, because they are difficult.”
Commissioners generally felt the MR zoning is too dense for the area.
As commissioner Lee Jones put it, “We need to think much more about the situation as it is now, the people who are here now, and how they’re going to be affected in the future.”
Jones continued, “I’m also concerned that there’s quite a bit more undeveloped land in that area. Developers who buy that land will use all the same arguments you’re using to develop it at a greater density, which will put even more pressure on everything surrounding it.”
The roughly three-hour deliberations on the item meant the 10 a.m. meeting did not wrap up until nearly 2 p.m.
Public commentary included remarks from familiar faces, including: two current county plan commissioners, Margaret Clements and Jim Stainbrook; one former county plan commissioner, Dave Warren; and two current members of the county’s affordable housing advisory commission, Cathi Crabtree and Deborah Meyerson.
Clements and Stainbrook spoke against the rezone. Warren, Crabtree, and Meyerson spoke in favor.
and Stainbrook had joined the unanimous vote by the plan commission to send the petition to the county commissioners without a recommendation—either for approval or denial.
The affirmative non-recommendation was the same strategy used by the Bloomington plan commission in early 2021, on a decision about a proposed rezone of an 87-acre plot of land on the southern tip of Bloomington.
The Aug. 17 vote by Monroe County commissioners to send the rezone request to commissioners without a recommendation came on plan commissioner Jerry Pittsford’s motion, which concluded: “I move that we move it forward with no recommendation and allow them to do what they please.”
Even though the plan commission is an advisory body, and there’s some sense in which the plan commission’s recommendation doesn’t matter—because the county commissioners have the final decision—there’s a scenario where the plan commission’s recommendation could be the deciding factor.
After the plan commission recommends approval, then the rezone is approved automatically, if the commissioners don’t act to deny the petition within 90 days. That’s what happened last year, when a 5.34-acre parcel just south of Bloomington was recommended by the plan commission for rezoning from estate residential (RE) to high density residential (HR). County commissioners did not act within 90 days, and the rezone was automatically approved.
During her commentary, Clements questioned whether the homeowners association fees were accurately factored into the estimates of affordability. Clements said, “We don’t really know how much the homeowners association fees would be in this community that they propose to build.”
Clements continued, “But there seems to be a growing list of costs… deferred to the homeowners association.” She added, “A robust drainage system, I would imagine that costs more to maintain than a regular drainage system.”
Improved drainage in the area, which included a proposed detention pond, was one of the benefits touted by the developers. Monroe County planning director Larry Wilson confirmed that the drainage board had approved the preliminary drainage plan provided by the developers.
Stainbrook echoed the concerns that nearby resident Guy Loftman raised during public comment about the increased traffic on Victor Pike that might be caused if the parcel were rezoned and the land developed. On a recent drive returning to Bloomington, Stainbrook said he counted 12 cars backed up from the service station to State Road 37.
Points raised in favor of the rezone by Warren and Crabtree included the investments that had been made by the community in the area like Batchelor Middle School, Clear Creek Elementary School, the new Monroe County public library branch, and the Clear Creek Trail which connects to the B-Line trail.
Warren said, “It would be a shame, if we only allow what current zoning allows there, which is 32 very large, very expensive homes on one-acre lots.
Meyerson, during her public comment, sought to provide some additional nuance to the information that county commissioner Penny Githens described earlier in the meeting as coming from Meyerson.
Meyerson said, “While I appreciate that commissioner Githens reached out to me recently about how to calculate housing affordability in Monroe County, and I gave a rough overview, I also noted that a suitable analysis for commissioners’ policy decisions needs to be more complex than what I could provide in a brief explanation.”
Meyerson continued, “It’s just not possible with current land values and construction costs in Monroe County to build new construction market-rate single-family homes at sales prices that are affordable to 100-percent median family income.”
Meyerson described two ways to approach the problem: “You can do that with a subsidy—there’s never going to be enough subsidy to build all the housing that’s needed. Or you can do it by adding to housing supply.”
Adding to housing supply, Meyerson concluded, was an argument for approving the rezone.
Whether the planned price point for the houses would make them “attainable” for prospective buyers was a point of contention between Githens and the developers. Monroe County’s household AMI is around $76,000.
Developer Donnie Adkins told commissioners that a family with $100,000 annual income could easily afford a house around $350,000. Adkins said, “We basically assumed a couple making about $50,000 each per year, that these homes would be very attainable for them.”
Githens countered that $100,000 was greater than Monroe County’s AMI.
The topic of price came up in connection with a newspaper ad that the developers had run supporting their rezone petition. Commissioners said the ad mentioned a $200,000 price point.
Adkins called the $200,000 figure a mistake, a “carryover” from a previous iteration of the proposal. On that iteration, Adkins said the request was for a rezone to high density residential (HR), which would have allowed about 160 houses, which could have been priced lower.
Githens remained skeptical about the idea that the houses were within reach of “middle class” people. Here’s how one of their exchanges on the topic wrapped up:
Adkins: In order to get the planning staff approval, we had to compromise with a lower number [of houses]. We would love to provide more homes at lower prices, but with the MR rezone, the most we can do is that, and hence the price point that comes out of it.
Githens: …middle class people. And that’s not really who will live there. And I find that offensive.
Adkins: Well, we can certainly provide you more data from more banks, if you’d like.
Githens: It’s OK. My husband’s a PhD economist.
The fact that the land to be rezoned is in one of the areas that Bloomington’s city council voted last week to annex was a point raised by Dave Warren in his public comment.
If there is not a successful remonstrance for that area, Warren said, when the land is a part of the city of Bloomington it could wind up getting approved for a denser zoning classification. “There could be the potential for the folks who are against [The Trails] to have to battle something that is far more dense than 125 homes,” Warren said.
Thomas summed up her thinking, just before the three commissioners voted down the rezone:, “I tend to think 20 years from now, if I’m lucky enough to still be here, I drive by this…Am I going to be proud of saying yes to this?”
Thomas’s answer to her own question: “I can’t say that I would be, because I know what’s there before.”