Category Archives: Zoning

Normal Planning Commissioners earn their pay

Actually, they don’t receive any pay, but they sure deserved some Thursday evening after spending three full hours listening to Town staff, developers, and the public while weighing the pros and cons on a couple of major zoning matters.

There’s something about the atmosphere of a planning commission meeting that irresistable for a local government junkie like myself. 

It’s raw and people wear their emotions on their sleeves.   There’s always a lot at stake in any zoning hearing.   It’s democracy at its finest.

As an elected official, it’s beneficial to witness it.  

There are things I see at planning commission meetings that, well, don’t ever show up in the minutes: the strength of the arguments, the passion, and the subtleties that someone who has spent more than two decades observing and participating in local government can pick up. 

Planning Commission chair Rick Boser does an outstanding job of maintaining decorum and a sharp sense of humor throughout the proceedings.   I enjoyed watching him run the meeting from the back row of the council chambers.   Rick is an experienced hand on the planning commission and it shows.

Sometimes, it’s a challenge to get the witnesses to stay on the subject matter, or even to face the right direction.   

Planning commissioners Jeff Feid, Kathleen Lorenz, Jill Hutchison, R.C. McBride, Michael McFarland, and Bob Bradley don’t get a lot of recognition, but I appreciate the work they do.    It’s not an easy job, but somebody’s got to do it.    And our community is better off because these quality volunteers have stepped up to do a thankless job.  

Thank you Planning Commission.

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The case against rezoning 1010 South Main St. for serious student housing

When I heard that someone wanted to purchase the University Cinemas at 1010 South Main for redevelopment, I was intrigued.  

While the dollar theater concept seems to be working well in today’ s down economy, as evidenced by all of the cars in the parking lot Sunday night, clearly a small dollar theater could not be a viable long term economic model in today’s era of megaplex theaters, stadium seating, digital surround sound, and the like.  Evidently, the land has been on the market for awhile.  

A single, 550-foot long, four-story building would run the length of the University Cinemas property from the railroad tracks, south to Cullom Street.  Developers 1010 S. Main LLC plan 198 parking spaces in the rear for the 350 bedrooms.   Planners suggest that northbound ISU traffic will leave the area on Cullom and Main Street or using Church and University Streets.   Residents are concerned that apartment residents will find other routes to ISU, through Hovey, Payne Place, Florence, Hester, and Fell.

Serious Student Housing -- A single, 550-foot long, four-story building would run the length of the University Cinemas property from the railroad tracks, south to Cullom Street. Developers 1010 S. Main LLC plan 198 parking spaces in the rear for the 350 bedrooms. Planners suggest that northbound ISU traffic will leave the area on Cullom and Main Street or using Church and University Streets. Residents are concerned that apartment residents will find other routes to ISU, through Hovey, Payne Place, Florence, Hester, and Fell.

Given the location of the property and its Main St. frontage, surely someone would have a creative mixed-use idea for redevelopment — one that would generate economic activity, compliment the neighborhood, and be a catalyst for similar projects.

So, I attended the public hearing with fairly high expectations, listened carefully to the discussion and was underwhelmed by what was being planned. 

As usual, it was a plan designed to fit as many student apartment units onto the property as possible. 

It was not particularly creative and certainly will act as a catalyst, if approved.

What is not surprising is that residents of the surrounding single-family neighborhood also view this as a tipping point event.   Their numerous emails and phone calls have been passionate and rational.  Among other things they are concerned about what will be left if this area is rezoned, opening the door for it to become the next big place for student housing expansion.    Here is an example of the feedback we’ve received:

I have seen on a daily basis the increase of traffic when ISU is in session. I can only suppose if another high density complex were to exist in this area the amount of traffic would increase. I feel the small children living in our neighborhood are at risk already from those who do not feel the need to obey the speed limit through our neighborhood. I also feel allowing another high density complex would have a domino effect for the area immediately surrounding the area. I can forsee homeowners electing to sell and investors buying the property, tearing down homes and putting up yet more complexes. As a home owner I am also concerned with maintaining my property value. I feel that the close proximity of high density apartment will not be beneficial. I am passionate about preserving our older neighborhoods and protecting them from demolition. I am aware that there will always be issues living near campus and I am willing to accept them, but I feel strongly about this issue and felt the need to express my strong opposition.

 

I agree that this proposed rezoning and redevelopment plan represents a turning point for the fragile neighborhood to the east.   The outpouring of neighborhood opposition demonstrates to me that nearby homeowners are fully invested in maintaining what they have, a nice affordable single family area close to ISU, IWU, BroMenn, and Glenn Elementary School.   

The council has invested resources in the area south of Vernon, purchasing and tearing down a problem fraternity, promoting the development of two Habitiat developments, and insisting on quality planning and development on both sides of Vernon. 

On top of that, we have declared the neighborhood south of Vernon  be a “no new student housing zone.”  

A row of five homes along Cullom, just west of University Street at the southeast corner of the proposed development.

A row of five homes along Cullom, just west of University Street at the southeast corner of the proposed development.

I believe rezoning this land and accepting this plan would contradict our efforts to the east.
As part of our 2009 planning retreat, the Normal Town Council asked staff to develop a plan that anticipates the loss of residence halls at the University, but we have yet to see that plan and have yet to discuss in any formal way where this community wants future student housing to be located.
 
Based on the limited discussion I heard at the planning commission meeting, the Council needs to engage planning commissioners in this process as well before we move ahead with a development of this size and likely impact.
This does not have to be an involved planning process that requires outside help.  Everyone involved in Normal Town government understands the issues involved in student-oriented multiple family zoning.  There’s a myriad of informal policies out there.
Before more residence halls go down, and more student-oriented complexes are built, let’s get a formal policy on paper.
 
We want it close to campus doesn’t really capture it for me.
 
Again, my immediate concern is the expansion of the footprint of multiple family housing into new areas.

There is multiple family zoning south of University and Hovey, but no buildings of this magnitude — a proposed 550-ft. long, four-story building with 350 bedrooms inside 2-, 3-, and 4-bedroom units.   Because there is no party deck, volleyball court, or balconies, the developers claim it will appeal to the “serious student,” a claim that invoked laughter in the council chambers when a resident asked how the developers plan to screen for serious students.  

There are plans for on-site security and property maintenance, which now come up so frequently as approval enticements that we ought to make them mandatory for developments over a certain number of residents.

I find it interesting how eager everyone associated with project wants to make it a Main Street Corridor project.  For those who place a very high priority on public acceptance of the stalled Main Street Corridor planning process and form-based code:   Is this what the Main Street Corridor reallyenvisions?  Is this how you want to get off the ground by expanding Normal’s already enormous footprint of student-oriented multiple family housing?

I don’t doubt the sincerity or integrity of the development team or even their desire to build a quality project.  They are attempting to jump through all of the hoops.  I recognize the limitations of the site, but jamming as many beds into one long building doesn’t seen like a proper fit for the property and defintely not for the neighborhood.   I challenge them to come up with alternative that maintains the current zoning.

I think we owe it to this neighborhood to not leap at the first high density multiple family proposal that fits on the site.  

Let’s study the market, figure out where we really want student-oriented multiple family housing, and in what densities.  

Let’s take our time and get it right.

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Filed under Development, Illinois State University, Main Street, planning, Uncategorized, Zoning

Normal’s zoning map will be changed to provide a complete picture of potential land uses

At Monday night’s council meeting, my suggestion to revise the official Town zoning map to reflect zoning flexibility in annexation agreements was adopted by common consent.   

The recent proposed rezoning in Eagles Landing brought the problem to light.   Some annexation agreements give the property owner the right to choose another zoning to reflect market conditions.   The Eagles Landing landowner sought to rezone from B-1 to R-3A.  

The information about which parcels carry this zoning flexibility was not reflected on any zoning map.   They are located in Eagles Landing, the Vineyards, the Trails at Sunset Lake, North Bridge, and Kelley Glen.

So the next zoning map will show which properties could be rezoned at the request of the owner and what those potential zoning classifications are.   It means when a prospective homebuyer looks at the zoning of nearby undeveloped land, they will get a complete picture in terms of possible land uses.

I also suggested that the Town ought to stop negotiating annexation agreements that provide this landowner flexiblity unless the optional zoning is for a lower density.    I’ll keep you updated.

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Zoning changes should never come out of the blue, the red or the yellow

In an earlier post, I discussed the need for prospective homebuyers looking at homes in developing areas of the community to independently verify the zoning classifications of nearby undeveloped land.

That way the prospective homebuyer isn’t relying solely on a realtor or builder with a financial stake in the transaction.

One of the best sources for information is the official Town of Normal zoning map.

However, I would argue the 2009 map, set for updating and approval at Monday night’s council meeting, is incomplete.  And due diligence is impossible with an incomplete zoning map.

The proposed Eagles Landing rezoning reinforced the need to signify on the zoning map where parcels are located which have the potential to be zoned  something else at the discretion of the property owner under terms of the annexation agreement.

At least that was what we were told during the early stages of the Eagles Landing zoning dispute.   Essentially, we were told that  if the council refused to rezone the property to medium-density multiple family (R3-A) then the developer could sue for breach of contract and would likely win.

When council members asked how many other parcels in recent annexation agreements were subject to this provision, we discovered there were several tracts of land that could be rezoned for higher residential densities  at the property owner’s request. 

Of course, that’s not what happened in Eagles Landing.   Neighbors organized and the council listened.   Clearly, the original rezoning would have been defeated.   The property owner correctly sensed this and withdrew his rezoning request.

 

The red color at the upper right represents land zoned B-1 (General Business) on the Town of Normal's official zoning map.  There is no reference to any other potential zoning on the map, leading any reasonable person to conclude that the land in question is zoned only for B-1 uses.

The red color at the upper right represents land zoned B-1 (General Business) on the Town of Normal's official zoning map. There is no reference to any other potential zoning on the map, leading any reasonable person to conclude that the land in question is zoned only for B-1 uses.

In the Eagles Landing case, one of my concerns centered around a zoning map that does not reflect what could happen if a developer/property owner chooses to exercise the flexibility granted in the annexation agreements.
Sticking with the recent Eagles Landing example, even if a prospective home buyer went to the official zoning map for a measure of insurance, they would not have seen it coming.

In the color language of the zoning map, the possibility that part of the red area at the north end of the subdivision could turn gray at the property owner’s request came out of the blue.

Here are the areas where annexation agreements permit such rezonings:

  • Kelley Glen — expand B1 up to 10 acres.
  • Northbridge — B1 to R3 (about 30 acres).
  • Vineyards B1 to R3 (2 acres).
  • Trails at Sunset Lake R1 to up to 11 acres of R2 or up to 6 acres of B1.
  • Eagles Landing B1 to R3 (25 acres)

In the Eagles Landing case, I suspect that the legal advice would have been ignored and the rezoning would have been defeated.   That’s why it never moved forward.   The facts on the ground were different today than they were in 2000 when the Town annexed the land.

  • The facts on the ground will always be different three, five, ten years into a development than they were on paper — the day the council approved the annexation agreement.   That’s why this kind of contract provision should not be repeated.
  • I will not support any future annexation agreements that provide zoning flexibility for developers in a way that pre-empts the Town Council’s final legislative say on the matter, unless the zoning change reduces the density.  
  • In fact, as long as I’m on the council, I will be inclined to give far more weight to the facts on the ground in these situations.
  • As long as there’s possibility that land can be rezoned in this way, I support revising the Town’s official zoning map to reflect provisions in annexation agreements including the year when the annexation agreement expires.

If a prospective homebuyer does their homework, a zoning change should never come out of the blue.

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That huge sigh of relief you hear is coming from Eagles Landing

They must be cracking open the champagne Friday night in Eagles Landing.

That’s the northeast Normal subdivision that has resisted idea of apartments in what was designated a future neighborhood commercial area at the southwest corner of Raab and Airport roads.

The fax came from the property owner’s attorney at 9:20 a.m. Friday.

Please consider this letter a withdrawl of the application for rezoning filed by Douglas R. Smith, Trustee of Land Trust JLO-007 (Sloneker-Eagles Landing).

Perhaps we can revisit this issue utilizing a “different approach” in the future.  

Very truly yours,

Frank Miles

I’m not going to try to interpret Mr. Miles letter, other than it appears that his client’s exploration of upscale age restricted apartments or duplexes is over for the time being.

For those popping corks, congratulations.   I have spoken and corresponded with several area residents, and I know many of you have been on pins and needles for weeks.  

Based on those converations, your emails, and my knowledge of local government as an elected official and homeowner, I have come up with several observations that I feel obligated to share.

In the discussion of this situation, the term “due diligence” has been used frequently.  I used it frequently when I discussed what prospective homeowners should do– but often fail to do –prior to signing a contract to purchase a home.

Adam’s due diligence check list for prospective homebuyers near undeveloped land:

  • Don’t take the realtor’s or builder’s word at face value.  Remember, as well intentioned and professional as they are, a realtor or a builder is trying to sell you something of considerable value.  They recognize that little things can get in your head and make you think twice about purchasing that home.  If they say a nearby undeveloped area is zoned commercial, or that the property owner plans to build offices, or a convenience store, there are ways to check it out independently.
  • Go to the official zoning map of the Town of Normal.  It is updated once a year.
  • Zoning classifications and Town staff contact information are listed in the zoning code handbook, a great resource for all property owners. 
  • Go to the Unit 5 website and look at the attendance boundaries for your new neighborhood.    Unit 5 — NOT the Town of Normal — makes decisions regarding school locations and attendance areas.  They are just beginning the process of redistricting for the new schools.
  • Recognize that the edge of town constantly moves as the community grows.   From my deck I once saw corn and soybeans.  Now I see residences.   When I moved to B-N, folks were amazed that Hedgewood, Northpointe, and Eagle Ridge (the first of many Eagles) were so far east.   Now Bloomington has a subdivision miles east of Towanda-Barnes.
  • In Normal, don’t assume that if the first phase of the neighborhood is detached single family housing, then the rest of the development will follow suit.   Based on some of the email I’ve received, I sense some confusion among residents of the Vineyards subdivison, which has a variety of housing densities.  I recommend that anyone living in the Vineyards take a look at the Town’s official zoning map.
  • Feel free to ask a councilmember what he or she knows.  If we don’t know, our job is to find someone who does know.

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Main Street Corridor Backgrounder — The Plan and the Form-Based Code

In his recent comment Normal Bob asked for some background on form-based zoning.    On this blog, I aim to please.

Both the Main Street Plan and the proposed form-based code are easily accessible on line. 

I have provided links to both documents in this post.   

For citizens interested in planning documents, www.mcplan.org, the website of the McLean County Planning Commission, is an excellent resource.

The Main Street Plan is available on the home page of that site.

In the 140-page document Main Street:  A Call for Investment, Farr and Associates recommends a single code for the Main Street corridor.   On page 36, the planner states:

“To create the active, pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing, multi-modal Corridor desired by the residents of Normal and Bloomington, the Main Street Corridor code should place a greater emphasis on building form as it relates to Main Street and the couplet (Center/Kingsley).   This type of code, known as a form-based code, focuses on the ultimate form of the building, while still regulating use and zoning management.  The goal of this type of coding is to reconnect buildings and the adjacent public spaces, such as streets and open spaces.  This relationship is the second half of the puzzle to creating a pedestrian-friendly Corridor, which requires improvements to both the right-of-way (public space) and adjacent development (private and public space) so that they can work together to define Main Street.

A form-based code will regulate the development along the Main Street Corridor with a series of building type standards.  Created from the results of the image preference survey (see the summary of the public process in the Appendix) and additional public input, these building types provide specific details to guide construction and rehabilitation along the Corridor.”

The actual proposed form-based code for the Main Street Corridor is also available on line on the Town of Normal’s website (along with the Main Street Plan), although it is a little bit harder to find.

The code establishes districts and permitted and special uses for each district, building type standards, setback requirements (front and side yard) and lot coverage, off-street parking standards, landscaping requirements (for parking lots, lot buffers, tree canopies, screening for refuse containers and utilities, etc.), and sign restrictions. 

A number of hearings have taken place on the form-based code.  Minutes from January’s Normal Planning Commission meeting are here:

A few very important things to remember:

  • Current uses would not change.
  • The form-based code would be applied only to new development.
  • Parking restrictions are looser than those in the present zoning code.
  • Landscaping is regulated about the same.
  • Signs would be restricted (but there is movement toward more leniency).

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Time for Main Street’s form-based proponents to make their best case

If I were keeping a scorecard on the debate over form-based zoning along the Main Street corridor, I would say the opponents are winning.

They’re winning because they have been collectively and passionately defining the issue in what has become an endless series of public meetings.

Based on the media coverage, the casual observer can only conclude that the proposed  form-based code is the folly of out of town, out of touch planners and designed only to create an inhospitable climate for businesses up and down the corridor. 

The other night at the ISU Alumni Center, the McLean County Chamber of Commerce held a hearing on the proposed form-based code.   Only one person — McLean County Museum of History Executive Director Greg Koos — spoke in favor of the form-based code.  

Eloquent as always, but alone.  

Based on the testimony I observed,  I would be surprised if the Chamber’s new political action committee would recommend anything but denial when it hands its report to the Normal and Bloomington planning commissions.    There might be some additional recommended tweaks, but the overwhelming sentiment was negative.

And I have to admit some of the opponents’ arguments were compelling.

McLean County Museum of History director Greg Koos testifies at a McLean County Chamber of Commerce hearing in favor of form-based zoning along the Main Street Corridor.  He was the only supporter to testify Tuesday evening at the ISU Alumni Center.

McLean County Museum of History director Greg Koos testifies at a McLean County Chamber of Commerce hearing in favor of form-based zoning along the Main Street Corridor. He was the only supporter to testify Tuesday evening at the ISU Alumni Center.

 

Obviously, I am more than a casual observer.   I’m listening very carefully to the discussion. 

Eventually, when the last hearing is over, and the final proposal is cobbled together, I expect to vote up or down on  formed-based zoning along Main Street.  

I have gone on record in support of the Main Street Plan and voted to initiate the proposed form-based code.  I have also supported changes to address some of the concerns.   Ultimately,  I still believe that as redevelopment occurs many corridor landowners will begin to see a significant appreciation in their property values.  

But in the absence of any vocal community support, it’s only natural that doubt begins to creep in and take hold.

So besides Greg Koos, where are the supporters?  

Where are the prospective developers, the property owners, the community leaders who want to see this happen?  Where are all of the enthusiastic participants of the public meetings that created momentum for the Main Street Plan?   

Or has that enthusiasm not carried over to the form-based code?

If form-based code supporters are wondering when it’s the right time to speak out, I’d recommend they do it now.

I’m listening.

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