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Planning Commission sends

Wednesday, December 20, 2000 by

School to talk to irate neighbors

Prep school blames city land regulations

The Planning Commission has sent a private school back to work out a compromise with its Brentwood neighbors, though some commissioners have doubts that an accord can be reached.

Paragon Preparatory School considers its problem to be the vagueness of the city's land use code. Principal David McGrath told the Planning Commission last night that when the school applied for its initial permits in the Spring of 1996, school leaders and city staff decided it would qualify under zoning guidelines as a primary school. The campus opened in the Fall of 1997 and now serves 130 students in grades 5 through 8.

But zoning issues and neighborhood complaints have always dogged the campus at 2001 W. Koenig Lane. McGrath says city staff has considered and reconsidered whether the school should be classified as a primary or secondary school campus—the latter needing to satisfy more rigorous requirements. Today, four years later, the Board of Adjustment has asked Paragon Preparatory to go back to the Planning Commission for a conditional use permit. The current zoning category on the property is LO (limited office).

Paragon appealed the Board of Adjustment decision to District Court. McGrath said he hoped a change in zoning—specifically the conditional overlay—would avert a court date. He added that Paragon had never willfully deceived the city as to what the school would be.

“I've got three letters from the City of Austin that say this school does meet the qualifications for a primary school,” McGrath said. “That decision was finally reversed by the Board of Adjustment, which we've appealed to District Court.”

City staff recommended the conditional overlay with some conditions. Three parking spaces on the southwest corner of the property needed to be moved, and other spaces needed adjustment. Asphalt should be removed to create a better buffer zone with neighbors, and ball courts needed to be moved away from neighborhood homes.

Neighbor Susan Schultz, whose property backs up to Paragon, told commissioners in an emotional plea that she had lost the privacy and enjoyment of her own home. Paragon built an elevated deck behind the school, and uses the back parking lot for fitness classes from early in the morning until the final bell rings, Schultz said. There's nowhere she can go in her house where she can’t hear the noise.

“In reality, I've lost everything I chose to live there for,” said Schultz, a 13-year resident of the neighborhood. “The deck looks right into my backyard. I can't even go out into my backyard in my robe to have a cup of coffee in the morning.”

McGrath said the school had made compromises to minimize the impact on neighbors, such as eliminating an outdoor public address system, adding a 20-foot fence between the property and the neighbors and minimizing evening and weekend activities on the campus. That did not impress angry neighbors in the audience. In fact, neighbors accused the private school of deceiving the city to keep a school on a piece of property that has never been appropriate for such use.

“It's our contention that the school manipulated city staff and the legal system to avoid issues of compatibility with its single-family neighbors,” said resident Richard Brock.

McGrath's promise to move the outdoor fitness classes off campus next fall did not appease neighbors, who said the school had made promises in the past that were not kept. McGrath said the move would require a tuition increase, which the school intends to implement next fall.

The Brentwood Neighborhood Association voted to oppose the conditional use permit. Association member Don Leighton-Burkwell told commissioners that if they did choose to approve the conditional overlay—as recommended by city staff—it was important to add conditions to address such neighborhood concerns as cut-through traffic, excessive noise and the possible future expansion of the school.

Commissioners eventually voted 5-2 to require renewed negotiations between the school and its neighbors, with the intention of putting the item back on the agenda for Jan. 23. Both Chair Betty Baker and Commissioner Jean Mather expressed strong doubts about whether a compromise could be reached.

“I think there will have to be a lot of conditions to make this acceptable and reasonable,” Mather told her colleagues. Baker added, “I don't see a peaceful resolution for this. I wouldn't want to go in my backyard and not be able to feed the dog wearing my PJs.”

Commissioners Ray Vrudhula, Silver Garza, Sterling Lands, Ben Heimsath and Sylvia Ortiz voted for the postponement, although Ortiz made an initial motion to pass the conditional overlay because she considered the school to be making a good faith effort to address concerns. Commissioners Jim Robertson and Robin Cravey were absent.

Crocker says it's time

To reconsider flood plains

Commission recommends zoning change for house

Development consultant Sarah Crocker has appeared before the Planning Commission on behalf of numerous applicants. Last night, Crocker appeared on her own behalf, seeking rezoning on her property at 809 S. Lamar. She bought the 1.1-acre property last year and recently moved her office to the building that sits on the front portion. Crocker said she intends to build a cottage on the back of the property, which she will use as her residence.

The land consists of two tracts, zoned CS (commercial services) and SF-3 (single family residence). She asked the commission to recommend to the City Council zoning both tracts to GR-MU-CO(general retail, mixed use, conditional overlay). However, staff proposed that the back of the property, where Crocker wants to build her home, be zoned RR (rural residence). The rural residence designation is applied to tracts outside residential subdivisions but within the 100-year flood plain, as a matter of city policy since 1985.

Crocker explained that the railroad tracks directly behind her property separate the property from the creek so that the danger of flooding is diminished. In addition, she said the regulations governing building in the RR classification would make it impossible for her to build anything there. The rural residence zoning designation requires no more than one home per acre and limits impervious cover to 25 percent. The configuration of the lots also added to the difficulty of dealing with the proposed zoning, she said.

Commissioners voted 6-1 to grant Crocker’s request, recommending elimination of the problems posed by the RR designation. Commissioner Jean Mather said she did not want to set a precedent for such development along the railroad track. Commissioners Jim Robertson and Robin Cravey were absent.

Crocker said she had done a similar case in East Austin several years ago. In that instance, “We were zoning a rather large tract to LI(limited industrial) from SF-3. A large portion of the back of the tract was in the flood plain. We needed to keep the entire tract as a commercial zoning classification and received staff support not to zone it RR. After the case was over, there was a great deal of interest in changing the ordinance. It’s time to pick that ball back up.”

Crocker said that at the time the City Council instituted the flood plain rule, the city did not have the types of regulations it now has. She said not only does the city have better regulations, but there are also better engineering methods for dealing with flood plain issues. The city is administratively granting building permits for houses in residential subdivisions within the flood plain, Crocker said. A member of the Development Review and Inspection Department staff said the city “may be getting away from the RR zoning” as a way to protect homes against flooding. Crocker said she is working with an engineer to solve drainage issues on her property.

Mather said, “If we’re going to be a great city, we will eventually need more open space.” She said she would like to see flood plains used to create greenbelts within the city, instead of development.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mayoral breakfast . . . Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Daryl Slusher are hosting a breakfast this morning to recognize city employees’ environmental accomplishments . . . CSC to lease. . . Computer Sciences Corp. has decided to offer short-term leases in part of its new downtown campus. Howard Falkenberg, spokesman for the company said CSC is acquiring the Mynd Corporation of Columbia, South Carolina, a provider of e-business solutions for insurance and related financial services industries. CSC is not planning to relocate the Mynd employees to Austin, but still anticipates eventually having 3,500 workers downtown. Falkenberg said lessees might be able to lease prime space for up to five years . . . CAMPO plan postponed . . . The Planning Commission postponed a public hearing on the city’s 2025 Transportation Plan until January 9, the date of the next commission meeting.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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