Habitat for Humanity of Monroe County has faced local residents’ questions concerning its plans to build a neighborhood south of the B-line trail.
Many cited environmental and aesthetic concerns at the city council meeting Wednesday, at which Habitat’s Planned Unit Development had a second reading.
This PUD would allow for smaller lot sizes and both attached and detached family homes, as well as lessened tree cover requirements. Habitat would only have to preserve 36 percent of tree cover, as opposed to the typical 50 percent.
Habitat for Humanity hopes to build 35 new family homes on the lot to ease demands for affordable housing near the downtown Bloomington area.
A third reading of the PUD will take place March 26.
One major concern surrounded reports that PCBs — chemicals toxic to humans — had been found in the area’s soil. Kerry Thomson, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Monroe County, said these claims were patently false.
“We have tested this soil, and what we have found so far is that it meets all residential standards,” she said. “There are no PCBs.”
Only two spots were considered “hot spots” — one under old train track foundations and another under old railroad ties. Thomson said once they can get under these old pieces they will test there as well.
“If there is anything there, we will have it professionally remediated,” she said. “But it is not on the piece of property that we are developing.”
She also noted these areas were downhill from where they were developing and, therefore, could not spread to their sites.
“I think she gave the council enough confidence so that they wouldn’t have to hold up a re-zoning petition,” City Planning Director Tom Micuda said. He said Habitat was known for keeping high environmental standards.
“Habitat seeks federal funds and follows federal processes,” Micuda said. “Everything is scrutinized at that level.”
There were also earlier concerns about disrupting a bat population in the area. In this case, Habitat would have had to begin building before April 1, or a Department of Natural Resources code wouldn’t allow them to cut down the trees, thus postponing the project.
However, DNR reversed the ruling March 5 after re-visiting the site and determining that no bats were in the area.
Concerning tree cover, Micuda said relaxing tree requirements was not common.
The nature of Habitat’s work requires that more lots be available in order to keep supply high and costs down for their home buyers.
“The planning commission supports this idea predominately due to the constraints this nonprofit has in terms of housing units they need to build in order to be able to sell houses at a price that somebody who’s making 20 to 70 percent of area median income, which is extremely low, could buy,” Micuda said.
Arguably, the council could demand they decrease their plan to 25 or 27 lots, he said. But those would be almost 10 lots lost for Habitat, thus upping the prices of homes in the plan and impairing their ability to sell those homes to their home buyers.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘This is just about Habitat. We wouldn’t be sitting here talking about this, increasing the density and taking out trees if it wasn’t for Habitat,’” Micuda said.
“And they are partly correct. And I don’t think we should try to say anything else.”
It’s about weighing the common good of more affordable housing versus stricter development of the land, he added. The council and commission has never before approved a Habitat build so close to the downtown area.
“It is an incredible opportunity for the first time in Bloomington’s history to give an affordable housing neighborhood a chance to enjoy the downtown amenities that those of us who may be more fortunate get to take for granted,” he said.
The houses are typically smaller than average, only about 900 to 1,300 square feet, Micuda said, which has prompted concern from neighbors.
Micuda added despite their size, the quality of the homes has been noted even by the county’s building community as they tend to be energy efficient and low maintenance.
Other residents during the Wednesday meeting also attested that Habitat built “nicer and better-maintained homes.”
Thomson noted the success of Habitat’s first neighborhood in Bloomington, Cedar Chase, saying that Habitat’s homes have slightly increased the property value of homes in that area.
“It is true that we look for materials that are easy to maintain so they last a long time and are easy so our homeowners can get on their own roofs and clean their own gutters,” Thomson said.
Habitat’s main goal is to provide stable, permanent homes for its home buyers, who must undergo education classes before they buy their homes.
“By and large, when I talk to a child whose parents are home buyers, what they are most excited about is never having to move again,” Thomson said.
Permanent homes will help end residential transience — moving from place to place — which is common among the working poor, Thomson said.
“It’s our dream to end poverty for these families,” she said. “When you can think about not moving, you can get involved, lead scout troops, get promotions and lead a better life.”