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Environmental Board OK's

Tuesday, May 22, 2001 by

Variance for Doggett land

Some say driveway will lead to Bull Creek degradation

By Doug McLeod

Last week the Environmental Board voted 5-3 to recommend a variance allowing construction of a new driveway off of Spicewood Springs Road along Bull Creek—a move that some Board members say will lead to degradation of Bull Creek and a dramatic change in the rural character of the area. US Rep. Lloyd Doggett and his wife, Libby, own the land, which rises up from a lowland meadow along Bull Creek to a high ridge with scenic Hill Country views.

“We’re looking at an incredible precedent,” said Vice Chair Tim Jones.“This will change the whole character of the development of this valley,” he said, explaining the move will create “a greater desire to upgrade (Spicewood Springs) Road and a greater degradation of Bull Creek.”

Board Member Joyce Conner, whose motion to deny recommendation lost out to a substitute motion by Chair Lee Leffingwell, said she’s very familiar with the area and she’s seen degradation of Bull Creek due to development. “I drive down that road quite often,” she said. “I’ve seen the effects of impervious cover on Bull Creek,” and this variance, by allowing more impervious cover, will forever change the character of Spicewood Springs Road.

At issue is Clayton’s Crossing, a proposed development on a 40-acre tract west of Loop 360. It lies northwest of Spicewood Springs Road and Yaupon Drive. The preliminary plan subdivides the tract into six large lots that rise up from the bottomland and 15 lots high on the ridge, which would be accessed from Yaupon Drive.

The requested variance is for access to the lower six lots only. An existing gravel driveway provides access to two rental houses in the meadow area, but city staff, along with the project’s engineer, say a new drive is necessary, not just to efficiently access the six lots, but for safety reasons. Even if the six lots are not developed, a new drive will solve a traffic hazard problem on Spicewood Springs Road created by the existing drive, according to city staff. Until about six months ago, horse stables operated in the lower portion of the tract. All 40 acres lie just outside city limits in the city’s ETJ.

Fred Lockwood of Lockwood Engineers, Inc., representing Doggett, said the current access has been in place for over 40 years. It serves the two existing homes on the property. “That land has been in the family for over 40 years, as I understand it,” he told In Fact Daily.

“That’s all that Mr. Doggett is doing, trying to preserve the access they’ve had on that property for 40 years or more,” Lockwood said. All of Spicewood Springs Road is in the floodplain, so once the land is subdivided, even if it’s into only one or two lots, a variance is still required, he said, because it’s in the Critical Water Quality Zone of a major waterway.

“As far as water quality goes, they’ve met all of the current City of Austin requirements,” he said, noting that the city has very strict criteria. “If they deny the variance then they deny access to their land….The variance isn’t precipitated by the relocation of the driveway. That’s not an issue at all,” he said.

Chris Dolan, with Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, said a single driveway to access all six lots is proposed to minimize environmental impact. “You wouldn’t be able to access it from Spicewood Springs Road without a variance,” he said.

Conner worries about precedent

Conner, who was emotional about the issue, presented her proposal with a set of conditions to be implemented as plat restrictions by the Planing Commission if the Planing Commission approves the variance.

“I feel like this is just another finger in the dike and once we take it out, the others are gonna go,” Conner said, warning her fellow Board members about setting a precedent. “I looked very closely at the findings of fact,” she said, and determined two out of five applicable findings of fact were questionable. Contrary to statements in the findings of fact, she said, the project would indeed be economically viable if only the upper lots were developed, leaving the lower section of the tract for rural use and eliminating the need for a variance.

If the owner had only the six lower lots to develop, Conner said could see granting the variance as a hardship. But with 15 other lots, all with beautiful vistas and perfect for expensive, upscale homes, “the applicant will make a good profit from that,” she argued.

Encouraging development along Spicewood Springs Road, which runs along Bull Creek as it meanders through the still-rural valley, will change the character of the valley in many ways, Conner noted. It will open the door to increased traffic and infrastructure expense, creating a need to upgrade the road and build bigger bridges. She explained how the winding road crosses Bull Creek seven times in the valley, dipping down low to make the crossing.

In her proposal, Conner recommended denying a variance on the basis that the “request does not meet all the Findings of Fact and creates a potentially devastating environmental precedent.” She further stated: “While the relocation of the driveway does not appear to immediately cause significant harmful environmental impact, the precedent of allowing such a variance to create 100’ frontage lots out of the ranchland along Spicewood Springs Road can be devastating to the Bull Creek environment, character, economy and traffic.

“This variance, not to relieve a hardship or maintain a current use but to create a subdivision, sets a precedent (for) similar development throughout the Bull Creek valley with enormous implications for the natural and traditional character of Bull Creek and the old road with its seven low water bridges. It is not sound or responsible environmental policy…The need for this variance is driven by the applicant’s desire to subdivide the 40 acres while still having access to the bottomland from Spicewood Springs Road. This plan gives the applicant ‘maximum’ economic use, rather than ‘reasonable’ economic use,’” she concluded.

Jones said the six large lots in the bottomland would accommodate six very expensive, 10,000-square-foot homes. “I have a great deal of trouble endorsing this variance,” he said.

“I’m trying to look at the big picture,” he said, commenting on the denser development in the upper lots, noting how other subdivisions in the vicinity might contribute to erosion and runoff problems. “It seems that we’ve found a clever way…to avoid having substantive water quality.”

Leffingwell made a motion for approval of the variance recommendation with a set of nine conditions to be implemented as plat restrictions. “I would like to see Spicewood Springs Road remain the way it is…it’s just nice and pleasant along there,” he said. “But we’re talking about a variance here,” he said, noting access to the lower sites is possible without a variance if the developer were to build a road with switchbacks down the steep grade from the upper lots. That would require significant disturbance of the land and removal of many trees, plus increased impervious cover.

“I would opt to give them a variance,” he said, since the driveway would be much less detrimental than a road from above, and the applicants would agree to a conservation easement so parts of the land would remain in a natural state in perpetuity. “If we don’t grant the variance, we’ll lose that,” he said, “plus we’ll get some water quality controls if it’s granted.” If not, all of that is lost, he said.

His substitute motion passed 5-3 with Conner, Jones and Board Member Debra Williams dissenting.

City variance process has

Pitfalls, developer learns

Design group recommends additional waivers

The Design Commission last night voted unanimously to recommend approval of variances for the LaVista on Lavaca project. The mixed-use building was going through city development procedures when the developers’ engineer noticed that his clients had not received permission to build at 8:1 floor-to-area ratio (FAR), among other things. Mary Guererro-McDonald and Jim McDonald are developing the condominium-plus retail-and-residential project on property that previously was the MD Pharmacy and the surface parking lot behind it.

The Board of Adjustment granted a variance in February that will allow the owners to build up to the edge of the property line on 17th Street. City staff failed to catch three other items that call for variances from the BOA.

A letter signed by city department Directors Mike Heitz and Austan Librach, as well as Guererro-McDonald, explains that “Oversight on the part of the developer and city staff led to three items being overlooked in the initial waiver request (to the Design Commission).” Those include increasing impervious cover from 95 to 100 percent and increasing the building coverage from 95 to 100 percent on one of the lots, which is zoned CS (commercial services). The second lot, which is zoned DMU (downtown mixed-use) requires a variance to increase the FAR from 5:1 to 8:1.

“The project has not been changed from the design that your group supported previously. Additionally, since the initial waiver request, the project has scored in the highest category on the Smart Growth Matrix; the project is the type of development that the City wants to encourage, and it has the full support of city staff,” the letter says.

Perry Lorenz, vice chair of the commission, explained “They erred in putting the cart before the horse,” but without the variances the developer would not be able to build the project.

Guererro-McDonald said after she received approval to build on the 10-foot setback, “We made an assumption that the building would be OK.” The project is scheduled for appearance at the Board of Adjustment on June. 11. After the hearing, Guererro-McDonald complained that the city did not have an effective system for alerting developers to all the necessary variances that might be required.

Commission Chair Juan Cotera and Commissioner Leslie Oberholzer were absent.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Neighborhood planner opts out . . . City planner Robert Heil is leaving the Planning and Zoning Department for a job with the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department next month. Heil, a principal planner, gets credit for the Dawson Neighborhood Plan, the first one adopted. He is currently working on plans for Bouldin and Montopolis, two of the more contentious neighborhoods to attempt planning so far. Cecilia Williams, a Senior Planner working on neighborhood plans, left the city last month. That leaves only one senior and two principal planners for neighborhoods. Chances seem pretty good that the city will have to pull back on its ambitious schedule for neighborhood planning . . . Fogel home declared historic . . . The Historic Landmark Commission approved historic zoning for a home at 2411 Kinney Avenue, after hearing from homeowner Paisley Robertson. Her request was supported by former Historic Landmark Commission Chair Wayne Bell, Bryan King of the South Lamar Neighborhood Association, and musician Marcia Ball. The home, which artist Seymour Fogel remodeled during 1952-1953, contains stone used in a barn built in the late 1800's. Fogel was a professor at the University of Texas. Some of his work is on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. The request will now be heard by the Planning Commission and the City Council . . . Demolition approved . . . The Historic Landmark Commission approved demolition permits for properties in the 400 block of Congress Avenue Monday night. The buildings at 401, 413, 415, and 417 Congress will all be torn down to make way for a new 33-story high-rise development by Cousins Stone. Landmark Commission approval was required because the block lies within the Congress Avenue Historic District. The newest of the buildings is the City National Bank Building at 401 Congress. It was built in the late 1960’s. Although other buildings in the block date back to the 1890’s and the 1930’s, they would not qualify as historic landmarks because of modifications that have been made. Those buildings currently house Oscar Snowden’s TV and Appliances and Ted’s Greek Corner. Developers of the high-rise at 4th and Congress are say they could break ground on the project later this year.

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