The Monroe County government’s planned construction of a new jail on an 87-acre parcel in the southwest corner of Bloomington hit a snag on Monday night.
By a 6–3 vote, Bloomington’s plan commission supported the planning staff’s recommendation to send a negative recommendation to the city council about Monroe County government’s request for a rezone of the 87 acres, so that a jail could be built there.
The county government’s request would change the zoning of the land from mixed-use employment (ME) to mixed-use institutional (MI). Use of the property as a jail would not be allowed under ME, but could be allowed under MI.
A jail is a “conditional use” under MI zoning.
That means even if the city council were to approve the rezone, Monroe County government would still have to go through the conditional use approval process in front of the city’s board of zoning appeals.
On Monday, a staff attorney for the county, Jeff Cockerill, told the plan commission that Monroe County had a purchase agreement for the land, contingent on approval of a rezone—but that agreement expires at the end of the year.
After this Wednesday, the city council’s calendar for the rest of the year has two more regular meetings.
There’s now a 10-day timeframe for planning director Scott Robinson to certify the outcome of the plan commission’s Monday recommendation to the city clerk. That would set up Monroe County government with enough time to hit the deadline for submission of the materials to the city council office for the council’s Dec. 7 meeting, when the rezone could get a first reading.
That could set the table for the city council to approve the rezone, when it would get a second reading at the council’s final meeting of the year on Dec. 21.
It’s not inconceivable that the city council could approve a rezone, despite the plan commission’s negative recommendation. As plan commission president Brad Wisler put it on Monday night: “The city council has a purview that is much, much broader than ours. They can consider a lot of other aspects of this.”
Wisler said that’s the reason a member of the city council serves as an appointee to the plan commission—so that they can report back on the discussion at the plan commission. Wisler was confident that Ron Smith, the city councilmember representative on the plan commission, would report that the rezone for the proposed jail property was not an easy decision.
Smith voted against the staff recommendation, which essentially is to say he supported the rezone request. The only other nine plan commissioners who voted like Smith were Chris Cockerham and Flavia Burrell.
For Monroe County officials, the question of whether to build a new jail facility was answered by two studies of the criminal justice system, which they commissioned in 2019.
At the first plan commission hearing on the requested rezone in October, county attorney Jeff Cockerill quoted from one of the reports in his presentation to Bloomington plan commissioners: “The jail facility is incapable of consistently ensuring and sustaining constitutional levels of inmate care and custody.” About that line, Cockerill said, “That is nothing a government attorney ever wants to read about his client’s facility.”
On Monday, Cockerill said the 87-acre property that the county was asking to be rezoned was the top choice of three finalists and the only one that is inside the city limits. Cockerill tried to frame the issue for plan commissioners like this: “I think the question…is this: Whether the city planning commission believes that the jail belongs within city limits or not.”
But commissioner Jillian Kinzie wasn’t willing to see it that way. About Cockerill’s idea that it boils down to whether the plan commission believes the jail belongs in the city or not, Kinzie said, “I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.” She added, “I think that’s an attractive proposition, just to imagine that this is about whether the jail should be in the city or not.” But she concluded, “That’s really not our purview.”
Crucial for Kinzie, and other commissioners, was the fact that the city’s 2018 comprehensive plan designates the area as an “employment center.” So mixed-used employment (ME) zoning, the current zoning, squares up perfectly with that part of the comprehensive plan.
Plan commissioners were not persuaded that the jobs associated with a correctional facility were the kind of new jobs that were called for in the comprehensive plan for employment centers.
During public commentary, Bloomington resident and social worker Donyel Byrd described the employment landscape like this: “I don’t think employing correctional officers is any new employment opportunity. Folks have that opportunity at our current jail and our current jail is extremely understaffed.”
On the question of “employment center” designations, Chris Cockerham indicated that some county-owned land south of Catalent’s current facility and north of RCA Park probably represents a better chance for adding large-scale employment, because Catalent is interested in expanding there.
Cockerham said he was “torn,” because of the loss of additional large-scale employment opportunities on the 87 acres but added, “I would like to move this forward with a positive recommendation, because I know the needs and then working with the county on this to solve a huge issue in our community.”
About the comprehensive plan, Trohn Enright-Randolph, a non-voting member of the plan commission, noted that the word “jail” is not included anywhere in the document. He suggested that that meant the plan commission does not have a guiding document for the issue that confronted it that night.
Enright-Randolph pointed out that the city’s comprehensive plan does talk about working in governmental partnerships—with the county government and Indiana University among others. “What I’m seeing here is a lack of solutions and a compound problem,” Enright-Randolph said.
Ron Smith, the city council’s representative to the plan commission, said he sees the comprehensive plan as “guidelines” and not as “law.” So he supported the requested rezone.
Flavia Burrell, who also supported the rezone, said she is sympathetic to the county government’s jail project.
The one thing Burrell wanted to clarify was why the request for a rezone was being made right now instead of later—after some additional community conversation might take place on the issue. The answer to that was the purchase agreement the county has with the owner, which expires at the end of the year.