This past Wednesday (Dec. 21), Bloomington’s city council denied a request from the county government to rezone an 87-acre parcel in the southwestern tip of the city, so that it could be used for a new county jail.
That city council’s denial came on a unanimous vote. The outcome matched the recommendation from the city plan commission, which had voted 6–3 in mid-November against the rezone.
The city council’s representative to the plan commission, Ron Smith, voted in favor of the rezone as a plan commissioner, but against it as a city councilmember.
The specific request was to change the zoning of the land on Fullerton Pike 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.
The council’s vote came a few minutes before midnight, after about three hours of deliberation, which included about a dozen public commenters, who spoke against the rezone, and generally against the idea of building a new jail.
A couple of public comments were made in favor of the rezone.
For councilmembers, their main land use concern appeared to be the distance from the center of the city to the site and the lack of transportation access. The road that is to be built is not yet completed, and there is not currently any public bus service to the location.
But at least as big a question as land use was the dissatisfaction that councilmembers expressed about the failure to include city officials in the community justice response committee (CJRC).
That’s the group that is making recommendations on how to respond to the work of two consultants, who delivered two studies of Monroe County’s criminal justice system, which were delivered 18 months ago, in June 2021.
The RJS report states: “The jail facility is incapable of consistently ensuring and sustaining constitutional levels of inmate care and custody.” The jail is part of the Charlotte Zietlow Justice Center, which includes the courts, located at Walnut and 7th streets.
The plan commission’s recommendation to the city council, against the rezone, was based on the planning staff recommendation—which was presented on Wednesday night by Bloomington’s development services manager Jackie Scanlan.
On the question of swapping in MI for ME zoning, Scanlan said it’s not clear how the use of the land as a jail would serve the area’s employment interests, which are described in the city’s comprehensive plan—interests which the ME zoning district would serve. Scanlan also questioned if the use of the property as a jail would allow the area to be developed as a “premier entry point” into Bloomington.
Speaking during public comment in favor of the rezone was Michael Carmin, who is the attorney for Bill Brown, the owner of the property for 35 years. The property has remained undeveloped over that time.
The current ME zoning is meant to attract a large-scale employer, Carmin said, but the reality of adding 200 or 300 jobs at that location would mean providing on-site parking for them—when not enough parking is even allowed under the zoning code.
Even though the purpose of ME zoning is to attract a large-scale employer, that is “never going to happen,” Carmin said. Carmin reminded the council that in March 2021, they had denied a rezone request from Brown to rezone the property to MC (mixed-use corridor).
Speaking against the rezone was Sydney Foreman, among others from a group that’s called Care Not Cages. As a “red flag” she pointed to responses from a survey of staff who work in the Monroe County prosecutor’s office, the public defender’s office, and members of the Monroe County Bar Association.
Survey respondents were asked for their perspective about moving the jail facility and two satellite courtrooms to the Fullerton Pike location. The survey responses were presented at the most recent meeting of the CJRC, in mid-December.
A majority of the responses were not in support of the location. Foreman quoted from one of the set of survey responses: “That is the absolute worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Also speaking as a part of Care Not Cages, Micol Seigel told the council that mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment is what the county needs. On the idea of building a new jail, she said, “Let’s build a treatment facility, instead.” Seigel continued, “Or even better, let’s use the existing treatment providers. Let’s fund them fully, and let them help people outside of a detention detention facility.”
Much of the city council sentiment against the rezone was based on the idea that inadequate consideration had been given to alternatives to building a new jail at that site.
Councilmember Matt Flaherty pointed to the fact that the cost estimates for renovating the existing jail fell in a range—from $22 million to $56 million. But it is the top end of the range was the figure that gets cited, as an argument for new construction and against rehabbing the existing jail, Flaherty said.
The failure of the county commissioners to include any city officials in the 14-member CJRC was a point cited by councilmembers to explain why they voted against the rezone.
Councilmember Steve Volan said the county commissioners “…did not favor including even one person from the city—a Bloomington police captain, a member of the city council, somebody from the mayor’s office—on this 14-member committee.”
Volan continued saying that the CJRC was put together “as if somehow the Bloomington police department doesn’t book people into the jail, as if the community of Bloomington doesn’t have a direct interest in everything that happens in and around the jail.”
Councilmember Sue Sgambelluri pointed to the lack of clarity that the planning department had described for the specifics of the project at the requested site. “Wouldn’t at least some of this have been alleviated, if the city had been involved in the CJRC from the beginning?” she wondered. Sgambelluri said, “I have too many questions and too many concerns to support this rezone this evening.”
Councilmember Jim Sims said he gave weight to the fact that the plan commission had recommended against the rezone. Sims called for a more collaborative approach to the question of addressing problems with the jail.
During the meeting there had been kind of delayed back-and-forth between commissioner Julie Thomas and councilmember Kate Rosenbarger on the question of whose responsibility it is to ensure that transportation is provided to the proposed jail location. Sims picked up on the fact that the question had been “What are you going to do about transit?” and part of the answer had been, “What are you going to do about transit?”
Sims gave his take on the question of transit and the general question of the jail issue: “I would like to suggest that maybe: What is it we’re going to do?” Sims added, “I just wonder sometimes why we can’t get to the ‘we’…”
Like Sims, Rosenbarger pointed to the fact that the plan commission had recommended denial of the rezone request. “I’m a big fan of supporting our agreed-upon plans…[Bloomington’s] comprehensive plan has this as an employment center to keep pace with changing economy, and a rezone does not support that.”
Rosenbarger continued, “A more collaborative approach was needed and requested, but it was rejected.” She added, “I think quite often folks want to work together, and we’re not given that opportunity.”
Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith led off her concluding remarks by saying, “I just think this is a terrible location for a new jail.” She cited its distance from the center of the city and the lack of access. “It’s just not not a realistic place to put a jail without any guarantees of transit,” she said.
Flaherty drew a comparison to the kind of collaborative approach that the city and the county should take in addressing the convention center expansion. “We need the same approach here,” Flaherty said. The commissioners should amend the composition of the CJRC to include city staff—from the police department, the mayor’s office—as well as a city council member, Flaherty said.
Council president Susan Sandberg framed the question not as deciding to locate a jail in any particular place, but rather whether to accept the plan commission’s recommendation not to grant the rezone request. Sandberg said she welcomed the public commentary that night, and could not support the rezone of the property.
The next meeting of the CJRC is set for Jan. 9, 2023 at 4:30 p.m.
Video: “What are you going to do?” “What are you going to do?” (Dec. 21, 2022)