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Amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance

By Scott Tibbs, July 13, 2009

I attended the July 8 Bloomington City Council meeting to consider amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance. (See the agenda here.) Many of the amendments were simply clarifying definitions and correcting typographical errors, but there were a couple of policy-related matters. Unfortunately, the proposal to allow "granny flats" will not be considered by the council. The UDO meeting is not the most exciting way to spend a Wednesday evening, but it was informative.

As I sat down, Bloomington City Clerk Regina Moore picked up an agenda and took it to me. I was sitting about 15 feet away from her desk and could have easily went and got an agenda myself but she decided to do it for me. This did not surprise me at all. Mrs. Moore probably did not think anything of it and would do that for any constituent, but I am always impressed when elected officials go out of their way to do the little things for their constituents. Mrs. Moore has done a great job with the City Clerk's office, especially going into the archives and putting minutes from city council meetings on the city's web page, going back to the early 1990's.

There are areas where I had concerns. UDO-065 prohibits businesses from making the primary pedestrian entrance in CD district off an alley. This was in response to the site plan for a downtown hotel. The council adopted a posture of "government knows best" on this matter, expecting that they would approve "appropriate" scenarios where a business can have a primary pedestrian entrance off an alley but not allowing it by right. I fail to see how the city council is qualified to decide for each and every business what is right for that business in attracting customers. Complaining about a hotel is just silly, because pedestrians are not going to be staying in the hotel. People staying in the hotel will be driving to Bloomington.

While UDO-066 was not intended to exclude any specific type of masonry, creating a list of what materials is allowed automatically excludes things not on the list. As a couple councilors pointed out, as technology (especially "green" technology) becomes more advanced, there will be more materials that are usable for building homes. If the idea is to exclude undesirable materials, it would be better to make a list of those rather than making a limited list of allowed materials.

UDO-067 would allow flat roofs on attached structures such as a porch, and an amendment by Councilor Piedmont to limit the size of the area with a flat roof to 20% (which was itself amended from 15%) was defeated. Again, this amendment and the discussion of it showed an attitude of "government knows best" that I find unfortunate. One councilor mentioned a house where the addition has a flat roof, saying it would not be "appropriate" a few blocks to the south. It is both ironic and unfortunate that we claim to embrace diversity and tolerance in this "safe and civil city" but we are notorious for not allowing diversity in building designs that the ruling class finds inappropriate or unsightly. We have an educated community that should be encouraged to embrace creativity, within reason.

The final amendment that I had concerns about was UDO-068, recognizing that LEED-NC guidelines used in the UDO are periodically updated by US Green Building Council. I am glad that the amendment requires the Planning Commission to approve changes. Local regulations on building standards should be regulated locally. It would create too much uncertainty if our building standards change when an outside entity changes their standards, because the UDO points to those standards. Ideally, this should be approved by the City Council, however, instead of the Plan Commission.

One of the statements I heard several times in the meeting is how the council does not want people to be allowed to do something "by right" without council approval. his indicates an attitude of "government knows best" that is unfortunate. I am confident that business owners and homeowners know what fits their needs more than nine members of the City Council. As I said above, we should embrace diversity and creativity rather than having the City Council outlaw things and then grant exceptions based on what they personally feel is appropriate.

One concern I have in creating the need to go to council for an exception is it weights the process in favor of large rather than small business. As some pointed out during the debacle over the CVS on North Walnut (see previous articles here, here and here) a large corporation or chain is much more able to afford the process of going before the ruling class to seek approval of the building design they seek, but a small business is going to have much more difficulty with that process. If the city wants to encourage small business, especially downtown, then we need to review the regulations we have that are burdensome on small business.