Zero conditional use requests for duplexes after 6 months under Bloomington’s new zoning, plan commissioner named

Since Bloomington’s most recently updated unified development ordinance (UDO) was signed into law by mayor John Hamilton on July 12 last year, no conditional use applications have been filed to build duplexes in older residential neighborhoods.

That was the report to the Bloomington city council’s Wednesday meeting by development services manager Jackie Scanlan.  The only way new duplexes can be constructed in older neighborhoods is through a conditional use application.

Also on Wednesday, planning and transportation director Scott Robinson alerted the council to some upcoming proposed changes in the UDO—revisions to the incentives that are available to developers. Developers of student housing are using the sustainability incentive, but not the affordability incentive, Robinson reported. The goal of the proposed changes will be to encourage the use of both incentive types, Robinson said. 

Those proposed changes to the UDO’s incentives will eventually be reviewed by Bloomington’s plan commission, before the city council makes a decision. The city plan commission’s next meeting is set for Feb. 7. That will be the commission’s first meeting of the year. The group will have two new faces compared to last year. 

The city council representative to the plan commission will be Ron Smith, not Susan Sandberg, who has served the last few years in that role. The other new face isTim Ballard, who has been appointed to the Bloomington plan commission as the replacement for Beth Cate, who resigned when she took the role of the city’s corporation counsel in early January. 

Ballard is a broker/realtor with Griffin Realty, the firm headed up by Bloomington’s deputy mayor, Don Griffin.  

Applications for duplexes: Zero

The updated UDO makes duplexes a conditional use in three zoning districts: R1 (Residential Large Lot), R2 (Residential Medium Lot), and R3 (Residential Small Lot). In addition, triplexes are allowed as a conditional use in the R4 (Residential Urban) zoning district. 

For duplexes in R1, R2, and R3, and for triplexes in R4, conditional use means that an application has to be heard and approved by the board of zoning appeals.   

That duplexes are allowed at all in R1, R2 or R3 was new starting with last year’s revision to the UDO. The 2019 revision did not allow duplexes at all in those zoning districts. 

Last year’s decision to allow duplexes in older neighborhoods was controversial among city council members. 

Various features were baked into the UDO revision as a hedge, to limit the number of duplexes that are constructed. Among those features was to make the use conditional. Another was a 150-foot buffer around approved duplexes, inside of which an additional duplex approval could not be granted for two years. The BZA also cannot approve more than 15 total duplexes in R1, R2 and R3, per calendar year.

A report was delivered to the city council on Wednesday because of a requirement included in the UDO that an update on conditional use applications be provided to the legislative body “every six months from the effective date.”   

Development services manager Jackie Scanlan told the council that the planning department has spoken with 13 people about possible duplexes in the R1, R2 and R3 zoning districts. Four of those conversations started before the legislation was passed last year, she said. Two of the 13 inquiries ended, because the owners of the property had notices of violation on file with the department—which is one of the restrictions in the use specific standards. 

None of the conversations had led to an application for a conditional use permit, Scanlan said. 

Scanlan gave some context for overall building activity, using the second half of years as the metric. For the second half of 2021, roughly the period since the latest UDO revision was adopted, there were 246 applications for certificates of zoning compliance inside city limits. 

In the second half of 2020, there were 348 applications for certificates of zoning compliance. But of the 348, 135 were related to a single project, which is being built by Trinitas at 17th Street and Arlington Drive, leaving 213 as a rough figure for the half year. Scanlan reported that for the second half of 2019, 2018 ,and 2017 there were exactly 211 requests each year. That was odd, but accurate, she said.  

From those numbers, Scanlan concluded there was not a general slowdown in overall building requests. About duplexes in R1, R2 and R3, Scanlan said, “We just aren’t seeing an onslaught of requests—that some people were kind of worried about for this particular use.”

One factor to consider, Scanlan said, is the requirement that the utilities be separate for the separate units in a duplex. The idea was to promote situations where the duplexes are owner occupied.  The planning staff are not currently proposing any changes to that, Scanlan said. But she wanted to alert the council to the possibility that the cost of separate utilities in a duplex conversion could be an unintended deterrent. 

Councilmembers who had voted for allowing duplexes—and who had been in favor of allowing them “by right”—appeared inclined to analyze the first six months of zero activity as an indictment of the requirements as too onerous. Councilmember Kate Rosenbarger said, “That’s not surprising to me, because I think we made it quite difficult and unpredictable to have someone know they could create a duplex.” 

Councilmember Dave Rollo, who had voted against allowing duplexes in R1, R2 and R3, said that it is premature to judge the impact of the UDO revisions. 

By way of response to Rollo, Scanlan said that as people get more familiar with the option, things might change. 

Councilmember Steve Volan, who supported duplexes by right, said he did not agree with Rollo that it is now premature to judge the impact of the UDO revisions. “The argument last year was this paranoid expectation that whole blocks would be dismantled by bulldozers,” Volan said. He continued, “I don’t see anything even remotely close to that.”

Volan asked Scanlan how long would be long enough to assess the impact of the legislation. 

Scanlan told Volan, “I’m hopeful we’ll have some more movement when we come back in July.” That’s around the time when the next 6-month update is due. 

Scanlan pointed out that last year, when the legislation was passed, it was already well into the building season, so it would have been hard for someone to plan for that year’s cycle. That’s not the case for this year’s building season, which starts in a few months from now, Scanlan said.