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Historic conservation districts adjust to new ordinance

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The Bloomington City Council debated last week on a new ordinance that will affect the city’s historic conservation districts.

These districts are established to regulate construction and demolition, in order to prevent radical change in the affected neighborhoods. They are often supported by homeowners who oppose large new student housing complexes, or other developments that locals believe would negatively affect the neighborhood.

But the new city ordinance would force conservation districts to become even more restrictive after three years, by elevating them to full-fledged historic districts.

City Attorney Patty Mulvehill said the new rule would bring the city into compliance with the state law.

The potential change means that the city’s two conservation districts, in the McDoel Gardens and Prospect Hill neighborhoods, will automatically become full historic districts.

In those districts, all changes to the exterior of structures would have to be approved by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Council member Chris Sturbaum, who represents the district that includes Prospect Hill, said the change is unfortunate but necessary.

“This isn’t something that people who selected the conservation district wanted. They wanted the district in a way of protecting their neighborhood with the lightest kind of restriction on what they can do to their property,” Sturbaum said, “This is changing, and this is not something anyone wanted to happen, it just happened when we understood that we were outside the strict regulation.”

The Matlock Heights neighborhood on the north side of the city is currently working to become a conservation district.

Council member Susan Sandberg, who lives in the neighborhood, said her neighbors are prepared to deal with the new law.

“Matlock Heights knows what they have to do to maintain their conservation statues, and they’re fairly confident that they will have the votes and the community interest to maintain the level they were comfortable with.”

A majority of property owners would have to vote in favor of keeping the conservation district to prevent its elevation to a full historic district. Sturbaum said he supports the idea of conservation districts, and worries that new restrictions could make neighborhoods hesitant to seek the designation.

“Our regret was the harm that would be done to the tool that would preserve these neighborhoods that would allow change,” Sturbaum said, “We’re going to talk to the state and see if we can’t, over time, do some work on the legislation for the future.”

The council voted unanimously to approve the new city ordinance. Sturbaum asked the city to be patient with the neighborhoods that have been elevated to historic districts against their wishes.

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