Editor's Note: On Oct. 8, Bloomington Alternative editor Steven Higgs interviewed Monroe County Commissioner Mark Stoops about a proposed new master plan for future growth and development in Monroe County. A portion of the interview aired on the Oct. 15 edition of WFHB Community Radio's EcoReport. What follows is a transcript of that interview.
Stoops and two fellow Monroe County Plan Commissioners -- Richard Martin and John Irvine -- wrote the proposed Growth Policies Plan, which would serve as a blueprint for future growth and development in the county outside established cities and towns.
According to Stoops, the proposal would ban development in environmentally sensitive areas and in the "Rural Area" outside the urbanized sections of Bloomington and Ellettsville and around smaller towns like Harrodsburg.
Higgs: Tell us a little bit about what the Monroe County Growth Policies Plan is, how the process works and how people can find out more about it.
"In this plan we focused, one, on how we can protect these valuable community resources, our environmentally sensitive areas."
Stoops: The Monroe County Growth Policies Plan is a plan that tries to provide some sort of structure to development in Monroe County for the next 20 years. So the time frame of the plan is 20 years. The last master plan that was created in Monroe County was 1996. This is an update of that.
Supposedly we should be updating it every 10 years, but right now it's been delayed and it's kind of sat in limbo for a number of years, and now we're trying to get back on track and get this accomplished.
Higgs: The 10-year update generally is not followed very close by anybody in the state, is it?
Stoops: That's true, it isn't. But this is what we try to do. We say, okay, in 10 years we need to be looking at another one.
Higgs: So this plan is going to replace the old one. Are there places where people can see and read the old one or the new one?
Stoops: The best way to get access to the plan is online, and you can do that at the Monroe County Web site for the planning department. The address is www.co.monroe.in.us/planning/compplan.html.
If you forget that, just go to the Monroe County Web site for planning, and then you'll find the comprehensive plan as well as other planning documents we have.
Higgs: EcoReport listeners are interested in environmental aspects, and we have a wide variety of environmental issues that we have to consider in Monroe County, from steep slopes and forested hills and caves to rivers. Can you talk about some of these environmental aspects?
Stoops: One of the real problems with the plan from 1996 is that it allowed development throughout the county and really did not have any protections in place for environmental areas. There were some, but they were weak, and there were a lot of loopholes, and many developers and engineers who designed developments could get around them.
So in this plan we focused, one, on how we can protect these valuable community resources, our environmentally sensitive areas. And those can include Karst areas, so caves and sinkholes and all the areas that drain into those, because those drain straight to our groundwater and straight to our streams.
"Protecting the forest I think is an important part of this plan."
But also things like steep slopes. Monroe County avoided the glaciers, so we don't have the thick, flat soils that they do in northern Indiana. We have ravines and exposed rock and a lot of very weak erodible soils. So when they get washed, there can be a lot of damage from those washing down into the water system.
And we have a great hardwood forest canopy that ultimately needs to be protected, both for a lot of species that use it, but also it's part of our rural atmosphere. Protecting the forest I think is an important part of this plan.
Higgs: A lot of that is in private hands. We have a lot of public forests in the county with the Hoosier National Forest and the State Forest system, but we have a lot of private forests as well.
Stoops: That's right. But of course the state doesn't do a really good job of protecting its forests, even down to logging on steep slopes. We also have floodways and riparian areas, the whole network of streamways we have. And in this plan we have set those aside.
In this plan, those areas that we are calling vulnerable areas cannot be developed and have to be protected. And that's throughout the county's planning jurisdiction.
So that's a huge change in this plan, but one that I think the community has called for and one that's necessary if we really want to protect these valuable areas for both ourselves and future generations.
Higgs: When you say countywide, some properties are already zoned for residential and industrial uses, so let's explain the concept of grandfathered lands.
Stoops: With this master plan, we know that there are already existing platted lots, so these are developments that have already gone through the planning procedure, and they have set lot lines that already exist. And also uses, so there may be industrial or residential uses or small businesses that already exist. And those are protected, those are grandfathered in.
But outside of that this plan aims to basically divide Monroe County into two sections. There is the rural area, and then there is the urban area, or the urbanizing area. So we call that the Bloomington Urbanizing Area, areas that already have a denser population around the City of Bloomington, around Ellettsville. And we also have some small communities like Harrodsburg and Smithville and Stinesville.
Outside of those areas is the "Rural Area," and our goal is to make sure that rural area stays rural. So in this plan there is no provision for subdivision-style development in the Rural Area. There will be single homes on single lots.
Again all those environmentally sensitive areas will be protected. We've kind of created a very novel system of allowing subdivisions on large lots in the area, while still protecting and making sure that the Rural Areas remain large lots.
So, for instance, in our current plan, the most restrictive use was probably forest use at five acres. The proposed plan calls for an average of 20 acres in rural forested areas.
"In this plan there is no provision for subdivision-style development in the Rural Area. There will be single homes on single lots."
But say you are a landowner and you have 60 acres, you can divide off small plots for your kids or investment, and that's okay, and that goes into this overall density of your section of the county.
But what happens then is you have what we think of as a parent lot, so that large lot, once you subdivide parts of it off, becomes fixed and can no longer be subdivided.
This is also very important and more of a fair procedure than just saying, "This is your minimum lot size, this is all you can do," which also tends to segment the rural area into more of a higher-density platted system.
Higgs: So, the plan that you have devised sounds like it's sort of directing growth to the areas where infrastructure and growth already exist and protecting areas where growth hasn't quite hit yet.
Stoops: That's right, and containing that growth. So we also have what you might think of as a hard line barrier between the higher density population around the city, as far as planning for the long term, the rural area of the county which we want to protect for basically the quality of life aspect, agriculture, small and large-scale agriculture, forest and just the natural areas that we tend to view as rural Monroe County, which we've been losing incredibly over the last 10 years.
Higgs: For a multitude of reasons, we don't have a lot of agriculture in Monroe County, but we have a growing movement in the community to grow our own food. What sort of accommodations does the plan make for local agriculture?
Stoops: We would really like to encourage that small-scale agricultural development, and that's both so we can provide food locally, which makes us more of a resilient community, but also a lot of people are finding that rather than having to exist in the corporate structure, they can own and live and work on their land to create crops that may really enter into a niche market nationwide.
"A lot of people are finding that rather than having to exist in the corporate structure, they can own and live and work on their land."
So I think one thing that we've realized is that really as far as agriculture in Monroe County, those small-scale farms have increased dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years. And people can do them both as hobby farms but also as their vocation and their employment. So there's a really valuable economic aspect of what we would consider a more resilient local economy that isn't as subject to the booms and busts of say a manufacturing-based economy.
Higgs: Are there provisions in the proposed Growth Policies Plan that encourage or protect the small farms that exist?
Stoops: Yes, there are. ... At first we create this comprehensive plan, and that gives us our basic policies and goals, and then strategies and actions to accomplish those. If you go online and read it or you get a copy of it, you'll see that it's broken down so that we're starting with an overall policy.
Once this plan is adopted, we'll have a series of public hearings on it so people can give feedback. And changes can be made. It goes from the Plan Commission to the County Commissioners, and once the County Commissioners adopts it, then we start the process of creating zoning ordinances. So the master plan is the overarching framework, and then the zoning ordinances, which we will work on next, are the legal means to enact what's proposed in the master plan.
So there will basically be zones and different types of incentives for these small-scale farms, just as there will be for, in some areas, incentives to cluster housing. In some areas, we will be encouraging industry. And basically a lot of those zones in the urban area already exist.
Higgs: Let's talk about the process. You said there will be some upcoming public hearings where people can get involved and come in after looking at the plan and make some comments. What's the schedule for the meetings?
Stoops: First of all, you can comment online if you can't make it to the meetings.
The first public hearing on this comprehensive plan will be Oct. 20, which is a Tuesday night at 6 p.m., and the Plan Commission will be taking public comment on this plan. Hopefully we will schedule another one toward the end of October. That will be decided at that Plan Commission meeting. If the members agree, then we'll hold another hearing.
There will also be another public hearing Nov. 17, which is a Tuesday, and if the plan is adopted at that Nov. 17 hearing, then it would go to the County Commissioners. Probably the earliest it could make the County Commissioners, I think, would be Dec. 4, which is a Friday, at 9 a.m. The Commissioners will also take public comment.
Higgs: Will you have a public hearing and then another meeting to vote on it?
Stoops: It can be voted on at one meeting. But I don't see that happening. One of the problems we had with the last master plan was that it was pushed through. Basically, it was a master plan in the mid 90s that divided the county into one-acre lots.
Actually, many of us who got involved in politics at that time did so because of that master plan and the people on the Plan Commission and the Commissioners who were driving that type of sprawl-development plan. We made a lot of progress, but it was a very flawed document.
"At first we create this comprehensive plan, and that gives us our basic policies and goals, and then strategies and actions to accomplish those."
Higgs: This really is a blueprint for how our county is going to look 5, 10, 20 years down the road, right? This is an important issue for people to get involved in.
Stoops: Very important, because Bloomington is already built out. All of the growth that is going to happen is going to be in the county. And so we're really focusing on environmental damage, or remediation, so we don't have environmental damage. The county is where it's going to happen over the next 20 years.
By our estimates, at the end of this planning term, which is 20 years, in 2030, we expect the population of Monroe County to grow by 30,000 people. And those 30,000 people are going to need homes that would amount to an increase of 33 percent homes or living areas than exist now, in Monroe County.
That's a huge amount. And that's countywide, so that could also be in the city, so if the city continues to increase density in the downtown, it will take some of the pressure off. But most of that growth is going to happen in Monroe County.
That's why it's very important that we focus on limiting that higher density to areas that are already served by infrastructure that the county provides. It's far more expensive to provide infrastructure to some cookie-cutter development that goes in out in the county in the rural area than it is to areas that already have infrastructure, like the road and street networks, and schools, and fire protection, and sewers, for instance, which we don't have in the county. It's too expensive to provide it out in the county.
The other issue is keeping the rural area of the county rural is that the road system out there cannot handle the increased traffic of higher density populations.
So there are a lot of good reasons to do it this way. And I think this plan solves problems that we've encountered from the last master plan.
Higgs: Anything else that listeners to EcoReport might want to know about this plan?
"We'll have a series of public hearings on it so people can give feedback."
Stoops: I think another important aspect of this, especially an environmental aspect of this, is that one of our goals is that we create a fishable and swimmable Monroe County. All of our water bodies in Monroe County are very polluted, grossly polluted, highly impacted -- the water bodies, that's all the lakes, ponds and streams.
What is the cost, the true cost to society of having water that you can't eat the fish from and that you can't swim in? These are some of the costs that I don't think we take into account when we create regulations.
One of our goals is that we create the buffers, the environmental protections and the mitigation that improve our water quality in Monroe County to the point that we can actually safely swim and fish in our water. This concept would have been completely alien a hundred years ago.
Now it's a reality that nearly everything we do ends up in our water supply, and just in case people don't know, if you're pregnant or even thinking about having children, or if you're a child, probably anybody, really, you should not eat fish out of Monroe County waterways, and you ought to think twice about swimming in them, which is a damned shame.
Higgs: To clarify, this isn't our opinion, this is the opinion of the State of Indiana through the annual Fish Consumption Advisory, which is published by the State Board of Health, Department of Environmental Management and the Department of Natural Resources. They are the ones who say that is the condition of our waters.
Stoops: That's right. And another part of our master plan I think is important is we will be focusing on alternative transportation. So, we will be planning ahead for systems like expanded bus service, rail, bike and pedestrian paths, so all development and all growths of units will have interconnected ways for transportations -- greenways and bike-pedestrian paths, rail corridors, things like that.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.