The Vermillion City Council approved on its first reading Tuesday an ordinance that changes a regulation of the Bliss Pointe Planned Development and amends the lot and yard regulations for single-family detached dwellings.
The changes come about as preparations are being made to begin developing “Phase 2” of Bliss Pointe. The new ordinance, if approved on its second reading, will reduce the size of lots in a central area of the housing development with the hopes that more affordable housing will be constructed in that area.
Lot sizes will be reduced for new single-family dwellings 6,500 to 5,400 square feet, reducing the frontage from 50 to 44 feet, and reducing the building line from 65 to 44 feet.
In 2013, the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company (VCDC) led a drive to create the Bliss Pointe Planned Development District because of a community-wide shortage of housing in the community. The VCDC purchased approximately 30-acres of land that includes a bluff on the western edge of the city.
For ease of construction, Bliss Pointe was divided into two phases. The first phase consisted of all of the bluff lots, a cul-de-sac, and other internal lots.
At the time, the idea was to use the development of phase one to fund the second phase, which would consist of higher density residential development. Currently, most of phase one has been developed, and the VCDC is starting the process to commence work on phase two, according to City Engineer Jose Dominguez.
In August of last year, the zoning uses permitted in Bliss Pointe were amended by an ordinance approved by the city council to allow for single-family detached dwellings as an allowable use, and to remove multiple-family dwellings within a central area of the housing development.
These changes were allowed at the request of the VCDC due to an increase in multiple-family units being constructed in the City, Dominguez said.
The zoning amendment also allowed, as a conditional use, the construction and operation of small car dealerships within an area of the housing development.
Last December, the City received an application from the VCDC requesting to amend the current lot and yard regulations for single-family detached dwellings within all of Bliss Pointe.
“Prior to any consideration, the applicant submitted petitions signed by the required number of property owners,” Dominguez said. The request reduced the lot area from 6,500 to 5,400 square feet, the frontage from 50 to 44 feet, and the building line from 65 to 44 feet.
He noted that the request was reviewed earlier this month by the Vermillion Planning and Zoning Commission.
“At that meeting the commission recommended that the city council approve the ordinance amendment as proposed with the addition that a natural barrier for purposes of aesthetics and safety be constructed along the back edges of the residences that will be backing onto Stanford Street,” Dominguez said.
He noted that several property owners were present at the planning and zoning commission meeting that offered comments. Their main concerns were with the proposed size of the lots. They were also unsure of how the plan shown in exhibits at the meeting would provide for affordable housing.
Specifically, Dominguez said, property owners were concerned about how affordability would be affected by the creation of a homeowners association that would be responsible for the maintenance of the development’s private roads.
“Additionally, (city) staff was asked by a member of the commission to include in the minutes and to inform the city council of his disappointment with the lack of affordable housing in phase two, and that additional and more creative work should be done by the VCDC to improve the design of the development before the idea is presented,” he said.
The city engineer reminded council members Tuesday night that the item they were discussing at that time was not the possible development of the center area of Bliss Pointe, but rather was the amendment to the ordinance that will allow for smaller lots that may create affordable housing.
“The development of the center block may be different than what was shown in exhibits and will require additional approval from the (planning) commission,” Dominguez said. “For example, in changing the lot sizes, the preliminary plat will need to be amended by the commission. The exhibits provided by the VCDC are only intended to help visualize what the center block could look like with the smaller lots.”
He noted in a memo to the city council that one of the original intents of Bliss Pointe was to increase the housing stock in the community and that requires that the VCDC offer a wide variety of housing styles.
“Regarding the proposed amendment, currently there are only two housing styles allowed within Bliss Pointe: single-family detached and single-family attached dwelling,” Dominguez said. “However, the lot and yard regulations limit the size of the single-family detached housing to what fits within a 65-foot wide lot.
“Reducing the lot and yard regulations may allow for the construction of smaller, less expensive housing,” he said. “Smaller size homes may be a better fit for the smaller lots. The reduction in lot sizes will also allow for a larger range of housing styles in the development.”
Dominguez noted in a memo that at the time that the preliminary plat was approved, the housing style for the center block of Bliss Pointe was not defined. “However, the applicant is now attempting to provide for a different style of housing for the center block,” he stated. “These houses would be narrower and accessed through the back by a private road. The requested amendment would allow for the construction of these houses by changing the minimum requirements for single-family detached homes.”
Dominguez also discussed the planning commission’s recommendation that a natural barrier be constructed.
City staff, he said, is recommending that the natural barrier be replaced with a fence.
“A natural barrier will require that the VCDC dedicate additional land for the construction or planting of the natural barrier,” Dominguez told the city council. “This would greatly reduce a property owner’s use of their backyard. In comparison, a fence could be built very close to the property line and would offer a consistent look along Sanford Street.”
He noted that the concerns of the planning commission were with safety and aesthetics, but added his memo to the city council that a natural barrier would encroach into the owner’s property by at least five feet with plantings or 21 feet for a two-foot berm.
“The encroachment will greatly reduce the property owner’s use of their backyard. Additionally, a property owner that purchases one of the affected lots might also want to install a fence, in addition to the natural barrier,” he wrote, adding that a natural barrier would also require regular maintenance from the property owner, or VCDC.
A fence could also provide for a consistent look through Stanford Street, Dominguez stated, adding that an additional benefit of having a barrier in general is that it would provide separation between the existing bike path along Stanford Street and the houses. The fence could be constructed by the VCDC at the beginning of the project, or by the property owner through the building permit process.
City staff’s recommendation to the city council was that instead of requiring a “natural barrier,” a fence should instead be required for purposes of aesthetics and safety constructed of wood, PVC, or comparable material along the backyards directly adjacent to Stanford Street of any dwelling backing onto Stanford Street.
Dominguez noted, while answering a question posed by Alderman Rich Hammond, that six lots remain in Phase One of Bliss Pointe. Hammond wondered if the new ordinance would allow those lots to also be reduced.
“I’m not sure that we could actually reduce the size of those because you would actually have to have three of them contiguous to each other for them to be reduced in size,” the city engineer said.
“I would not be anxious to change anything in Phase One, because the people around there that purchased everything purchased on the idea that they would have that much room between each other,” Holland said. “Right now, I don’t know where those six empty lots are.”
He added that, at minimum, he would like to see the suggested fence be constructed, at the bare minimum, of opaque or solid plastic. “Preferably, even better than that,” Holland said, “because I would think that Bliss Point would want to have it better than that because that’s the first thing people are going to see coming off of Stanford there, looking at the place.”
City Council member Howard Willson said he believes the fence should be constructed by the VCDC rather than each property owner so that it would be uniform in design.
He also voiced concern that the smaller lots proposed in the ordinance would lead to the construction of tract homes in the housing development.
Nate Welch, CEO of the VCDC, said the price of the smaller lots hasn’t been determined.
“That is one of the goals that obviously the smaller the lot, we won’t need to be able to charge to make up for any of it,” he said. “We would hope and intend that those lots would be a little less expensive.”
“I’m just wondering if it’s going to be worthwhile,” Willson said, “because I don’t want to see it become a tract development.”
“I would share that same concern that you have, as well,” Welch said. “That would not be our intent and we would certainly be monitoring it. The attractiveness, not only in just the aesthetic, but also in the invitation of having that be a neighborhood and a community that people want to live in, is, of course, one of the main priorities of the VCDC, so we certainly have that front of mind as we continue to develop it.”
“Does that mean that you are going to change your requirements for the houses on those smaller lots?” Willson asked. He noted that houses with a wide variety of roof styles couldn’t be built on a 44-foot lot.
“The answer is no, we would not be changing all of the requirements … for specific goals,” Welch said, noting that in discussions over the years of Bliss Pointe’s development, there have been many requests for changes in design requirements.
“We take everything very seriously, but at the same time, we do not change course,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re making this request, so that we can ensure that we have the ability to be agile while at the same time not change just because of one specific house request here or there.”
Willson reiterated that he did not want to see only one style house be constructed in the next phase.
“You need to have some variance there to keep the atmosphere of that development to continue,” he said. “You don’t have identical houses side by side by side and when you make the smaller lot, you can only put so much house on that smaller lot and you end up with what I call a tract home.”
Welch noted the builders of the homes at Bliss Pointe are good at constructing uniquely designed homes.
“They want them to be able to sell and we all love the uniqueness of those,” he said. “I do think there are some great updates, even if they are on a smaller lot -- changing the size, changing some styles here and there, changing the pitch of a roof here and there can all of a sudden make an entire block look very different and yet at the same time be relatively similar when it comes to the lot sizes. I think we’re on the same track when it comes to that priority.”
“We’re dabbling into the sign aspect and I don’t think that’s what is at play here,” Councilwoman Julia Hellwege said. “If we want the homes to be more affordable than what is on the outer rim -- on the bluff side, if you will, of Bliss Pointe -- then we need to make the lots smaller. I’m kind of torn and frustrated between the former idea that we had about more dense homes and we were talking about having apartments here.
“Now we’re looking at smaller lots and being concerned about that, so I think that, considering the original idea and considering our goal is still is not “capital A” affordable homes and not federally-subsidized homes,” she said, “but homes that are affordable to potentially first-time homebuyers, small families, retirees, I think the smaller lots are the best way to do that.”
“Personally, we might all have our own opinions on aesthetics and things like that. My tendency is to allow the group that has been continually working on this development, the people who know what can be sold and what the market looks like and how the numbers actually shake out,” Mayor Kelsey Collier-Wise said. “ … We’ve got some expertise that is taking this on and I do believe has the best interest of the project at heart. That would be my personal take. I’m certainly not a builder or developer or real estate agent and they have a much better idea about what’s going to sell and what it’s going to cost than I would.”
Holland said he would oppose the ordinance if it meant the city council would have no more opportunities to review the designs of the homes that would be constructed.
“I think the idea of small lots to make more affordable housing is great,” he said. “I think the proposed or example design that they set is a disaster. I think it would promote an area that would quickly deteriorate and probably not sell very well.”
City Manager John Prescott noted that the proposed ordinance, if passed Tuesday, still would have to receive a second reading in two weeks. He suggested that council members with concerns about the design and concepts of Phase 2 meet with Welch at its March 1 noon meeting to discuss these issues in more depth.
At the evening March 1 meeting, the city council could either adopt the ordinance on its second reading, or continue it.
“I’m sure Nate would be happy to sit down and visit with any of you one-on-one before that as well,” he said, “to discuss that.”
Both Holland and Willson expressed support of that idea and ultimately the ordinance received unanimous approval on its first reading.