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Questions Remain in Matlock Heights Neighborhood

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This Wednesday the Bloomington City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to restrict future development in a neighborhood on the north side of the city. Many residents of the Matlock Heights neighborhood have asked for designation as a conservation district, which would probably keep out new student-oriented apartment complexes or certain commercial businesses. The process has been underway since 2010 and it has support from many residents and most of the Council.

But a legal issue that has come to light in recent months raises questions about the future of the district. WFHB Assistant News Director Joe Crawford brought us that story for today’s WFHB feature exclusive.

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Until the 1950s, the area north of what is now State Road 46 was a large farm owned by the family of George Matlock. The old farmhouse, built in approximately 1850, still stands in what is now a neighborhood called Matlock Heights. Most of the houses were built in the decade after developer Waldron Fritz bought the land in 1951.

“It was after the war – not much building had gone on and there was a real need for housing,” said Matlock Heights resident Carol Darling. “Here was this whole farm that was for sale. So he bought it and built these lovely homes.

Darling is one of the residents who has petitioned the city to designate Matlock Heights as a conservation district. It would be the first mid-century neighborhood in the state to get that kind of historic protection.

Unlike some of Bloomington’s historic neighborhoods, where many of the houses are more than a century old, most Matlock Heights homes are closer to 60. And residents who support the conservation district have overwhelmingly said they’re not looking necessarily to protect the architecture of those 60-year-old buildings. They just want to preserve the character of the area, to keep out big apartment complexes or other developments that would primarily serve students at IU, which is just south of the neighborhood.

“We’re proud of the history of Matlock Heights and we want to keep it the way it is,” Darling said. “That may sound selfish, but we just enjoy living here.”

But establishing a conservation district in Bloomington is different now than it was in 2010, when residents first petitioned for the designation. The city corrected one of its statutes late last year to comply with an old state law governing historic preservation rules. And now, according to the city attorney Patty Mulvehill, it’s technically possible that a vote for a conservation district could ultimately mean a vote for a full blown historic district, which would be much more restrictive.

“There’s a period of time…where the property owners in that district have to object to elevation to historic district status,” Mulvehill said. “The neighbors know about that.”

What that means is the neighborhood will have to hold a vote in about three years to determine whether they’ll stay a conservation district. If a majority of property owners don’t vote to keep the status quo, the neighborhood would automatically elevate to a full historic district. Property owners would then have to go before a city’s Historic Preservation Commission to get approval for any changes to the outsides of their houses, meaning the commission could regulate the styles of home additions or yard fences or even paint color.

Darling, who many identified as a neighborhood leader on the issue, said she’s confident her neighborhood of just 80 homes will vote to keep the conservation district and avoid the extra rules.

“We already have plans in place to contact every person in the neighborhood to vote against becoming a historic district,” Darling said.

No one who spoke with WFHB said they favored making Matlock Heights a full blown historic district. But some were less sure than Darling about its future status. I asked Robin Halpin Young, the president of the Matlock Heights Neighborhood Association, if she was sure the neighborhood would vote against elevating to full historic status.

“Quite honestly I would say I’m not sure at all,” Halpin Young said. “I think it’s really going to be a discussion in our neighborhood as we go…I don’t think anyone in our neighborhood would tell you one way or another because we’ve just been focused on getting the conservation district through.”

Young went on to say she thought there was a good possibility the neighborhood would keep the conservation district status. But that lack of certainty, which have also been voiced by some City Council members, raises the possibility the Council could vote this week for a conservation district, which they say is popular in the neighborhood, and three years later the area could become a full historic district, which could be much more controversial.

As Nancy Hiestand, with the city of Bloomington, pointed out, the state legislature initially intended conservation districts to be a phase on the way to full historic status.

“It is certainly built in that people could become comfortable with the conservation district and want more regulation as they saw certain things happen,” Hiestand said. “But it would be, I think, unlikely in the case of Matlock Heights, where they’ve really thought through what they want for their neighborhood.

Although many residents are clearly organized in support of the conservation district, there is some opposition. Derk Brewer lives in the southwest corner of the proposed district. Brewer says he opposes the restrictions because he’d like to eventually sell his house to a business that could use the location along State Road 46. The conservation district rules alone would prevent him from doing that.

But Brewer said he’s also concerned about the looming possibility for a full historic district. And he said there could be others who feel the same way.

“I think they should have to take that survey again now that it’s been in the paper and like you on the radio, letting people know that this has a high likelihood of elevating to a full historic district,” Brewer said.

Brewer went on to say he’s considered filing a lawsuit to stop the process, although he said he doesn’t currently have the money to fight the case.

The City Council is set to hold a final vote on the issue this Wednesday. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Council chambers at City Hall.

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