Monroe County says no to rezone, would have allowed farm to have short-term rental use

In a rare split vote, Monroe County commissioners have denied a request for the rezoning of some property east of the city of Bloomington.

The owner had requested a rezone, in order to use a farmhouse located on 19-acres as an Airbnb—that is, a short-term rental.

The specific proposal from Jason Voorhies was to change the zoning from Estate Residential 2.5 to Agricultural/Rural Reserve, which would have allowed use of the property as a tourist home/cabin.

The zoning change came with a commitment by Voorhies to apply for a historic preservation overlay. According to the Indiana State Historic Architectural and Archaeological Research Database (SHAARD), the existing farmhouse and associated barn structures are listed as “contributing.” That’s a designation that means the property met the basic requirement of being pre-1970, but that it is not historic enough to stand on its own as “outstanding” or “notable.”

Part of the case Voorhies tried to make to commissioners was that the income from the property’s use as a short-term rental would help him to rehabilitate and maintain the farmhouse and two barns.

Wednesday’s vote by the three commissioners was not unanimous. Lee Jones voted yes while Penny Githens and Julie Thomas voted no. But as the appointee from the board of county commissioners to the plan commissioner, Thomas had voted for the rezone at that group’s June 21 meeting.

The plan commission’s recommendation was in support by just a 5–4 margin. Joining Thomas on that vote were: Jerry Pittsford, Dee Owens, Amy Thompson, and Bernard Guerrettaz. Voting against the recommendation on the plan commission were Trohn Enright-Randolph, Geoff McKim, Jim Stainbrook, and Margaret Clements.

As Thomas put it last week, when commissioners first heard the request, “I did vote yes, on the original petition, but I am nothing if not protean and willing to change my mind based on facts and data presented to me.”

A couple of dozen neighbors of the property attended last week’s meeting of the commissioners, to oppose the rezoning, based on the negative impact they believe the use as a short-term rental would have on their quality of life and the character of the area. Several of them spoke during the public hearing.

Commissioners said the decision was not easy. Penny Githens called it “the hardest rezone that we’ve had to review.” One of the objections of neighbors was the likely use of a firepit by short-term rental guests. Githens said she thinks a firepit would wind up being used, with or without the rezone—so that was not a deciding factor for her.

For Githens, it was the concerns that neighbors had raised—increased travel to the area and large parties. Githens said, “I am very, very concerned with what we heard from the neighbors about traffic in and out, and about the inability to control large parties.”

Part of the opposition from neighbors was based on the fact that the Voorhies family no longer live on the property. Voorhies countered that by saying he could reach the property faster than the fire department.

Commissioner Lee Jones also saw the possibility that some of the concerns neighbors had could be realized anyway, if the Voorhies family were to move back to live on the property.

Jones said, “I believe they have three daughters who will eventually become teenagers. And those daughters might decide to party—their parents might even leave them there alone at times.” Jones added, “I seem to remember that kind of thing from when I was a youth.” Jones also said, “I think that three teenage girls could cause an awful lot of extra traffic all on their own.”

Jones also cited the potential for historic protection of the property, which she thinks is unlikely, if the rezone were not granted.

For county commissioners and plan commissioners alike, including Thomas, what weighed in favor of the rezone was the prospect that the farmhouse and barns could enjoy historic projection. Thomas also said this week that the character references that Voorhies had provided were “amazing.”

The solid opposition from neighbors tipped the balance against the rezone.

As Thomas put it, “We have neighbors who live there, who are concerned about what a short-term rental will do to their neighborhood.” As for the potential negative impact, Thomas said, “Believe me, I’ve heard stories from outside our area, but also within the city of Bloomington and in the county, about tourist homes.”

Even though the decision was difficult, Thomas said, she was split. “And when I’m split in the middle. I just can’t support a rezone,” Thomas said.

A bid on Wednesday by Voorhies to help win over votes did not have the hoped-for impact. At Wednesday’s meeting, he said he would be willing to make a zoning commitment to strike all the additional uses allowed in the new zoning, aside from those connected to short-term rentals.

Thomas responded to that by supporting the amended petition but added, “I just think it’s unfortunate that this is sort of an 11th-hour offer.” She was in favor of the amendment, but added, “I’m just concerned that the people who live in that neighborhood haven’t had the opportunity to chime in now. And I don’t think that’s fair to them.”