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Habitat for Humanity Pushing to Develop on Controversial Land

The Bloomington Plan Commission voted February 24 to fast-track approval for a 35 home subdivision in what is currently an urban forest along the B-Line Trail.

Habitat for Humanity is seeking to develop the wooded area north of downtown between the B-Line and Reverend Ernest D. Butler Park.

Kerry Thompson, the president of Monroe County Habitat for Humanity, said her organization is running out of spaces to build in Bloomington.

“The largest obstacle for Habitat in recent years has been land,” Thompson said, “There simply are not enough infill lots remaining in the city of BLoomington to meet the needs of families. There is no affordable home ownership option close to the city center.”

The project would require the organization to cut down 64 percent of the trees in the area, which concerned many neighbors who attended the meeting. Some also questioned the high density of the proposed neighborhood and the revelation that soil is contaminated with lead, coal ash and other pollutants.

Marti Crouch, a biologist who lives near the site, said some might undervalue the wooded area in its current state.

“We have very little of that type of diverse native, urban forest in contiguous pieces in our city,” Crouch said, “I’m not sure what the definition of infill is, but I’m concerned that if the planning department thinks that every little green space needs to be turned into buildings and structures because that will somehow save outer areas from being developed, I’d like to see some facts on that.”

Crouch was referring to comments by local developer Matt Press, who described himself as a proponent of “good urban infill the right way.”

Press said denying Habitat this development would just force it to build houses on the outskirts of Bloomington.

“Nothing in the real world happens in a vacuum,” Press said, “The homeowners are already here in our community. If we say no to this project they will either continue to live in sub-standard housing or they will move into a new Habitat home, now likely built on a larger lot on the edge of town. That lot, in turn, would displace a market-rate home that will inevitably be built on yet a bigger piece of land on yet another former farm or forest.”

One major dispute involved Habitat’s request that the commission waive the requirement for a second hearing on the development.

Thompson said the organization wanted to speed up the city’s approval process so it could clear the forest by an April 1 deadline.

“Our request was made after we discovered that the Indiana bat could come to roost in the area,” Thompson said, “We had no intention to rush this process, in fact we have engaged pretty fully in the public comment process. We build by federal environmental regulations and unfortunately we have never encountered this stipulation for tree-clearing prior to April 1.”

Federal guidelines prohibit clearing trees from April through October to prevent disturbing roosting Indiana bats, which are endangered.

But several neighbors said they had just recently heard about Habitat’s plans, and they want more time to consider the implications of the new subdivision. Ruth Beasley was one of those neighbors.

“Finally, tonight, I’m getting bits and pieces of what I consider very complicated information,” Beasley said, “I want to read the documents for myself before I make a decision. I too have worked on Habitat houses. I love my Habitat neighbors. My daughter’s best friend has worked so hard to get her Habitat House. But I feel cheated in time to think, time to talk to my neighbors about what they think and I strongly urge you not to do away with the second hearing.”

Despite concerns from neighbors, the commission voted to waive the second hearing and forward the development to the City Council.

The council will hold two meetings on the issue before voting to approve to reject the proposal.

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