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One halfway house enough for street, says commission

Monday, March 29, 2004 by

Neighborhood advocates oppose additional prison-release program

The Planning Commission last week denied permission for operators of a halfway house on North Lamar to open a second facility down the street for inmates released from Texas prisons. While neighbors of the proposed location at 5117 N. Lamar said they had not experienced any problems with the existing facility at 6222 N. Lamar, they argued that placing two homes for ex-inmates within such close proximity would place an undue burden on the neighborhood.

Up to Me, Inc. runs the facility at 6222 N. Lamar, which provides transitional housing for 84 men released from TDCJ facilities. The group asked for a conditional-use permit to open a facility for women at 5117 N. Lamar. Agent Mike McHone told commissioners that the group had received approval from the North Loop Planning team before approaching the commission. “The neighborhood planning team wanted a wide variety of housing types available. This is a housing type that is needed and is supported by that team,” he said. “It is not a situation where we, as a community, can turn our backs on these people that are coming back to us. This is the best hope for them to get the guidance and supervision to be reintegrated into society in a way that gives them a chance to make meaningful and productive lives.”

The location and layout of the proposed facility were reviewed by the TDCJ, which held a meeting in the neighborhood last November. Representatives of Up to Me, Inc. told commissioners they had made every effort to gauge the will of the community before proceeding with plans for the site. “We’ve done everything there is by the book and by the neighborhood association’s plan,” said Up to Me Board President Jerome Carter. “We went to the neighborhood association in April of last year. They met in April and July before making their decision in August.”

Up to Me Executive Director Patricia Jennings stressed that her previous experience in dealing with neighborhood groups had taught her the necessity of winning neighborhood support. “I have a lot of respect for the neighborhood association,” she said. “That’s why I took the initiative to talk to them in May of last year. I know without the neighborhood support, you can’t do anything.” She told commissioners she had only arrived at the 5117 N. Lamar site after consulting with the North Loop Planning Team. “I had first wanted to move into another site on Guadalupe,” she said. “They opposed that, and they suggested that I look at the one on 5117 N. Lamar.”

But immediate neighbors of the proposed site told commissioners they had been left out of the process until receiving notification of the request for the conditional-use permit. “Nobody knew anything. We were completely confused,” said North Field Neighborhood resident Allison Randall. “We found out by chance; we didn’t even find out in a meeting. As soon as we found out, we got very active.”

While the applicants had gone to the North Loop Planning Team, she said that the group covered an extremely large area. She compared winning the planning team’s approval to residents of Dallas granting approval for a halfway house in El Paso. “I was actually fairly open-minded about it in the beginning,” she said. But Randall told commissioners that putting more than 50 women into the building, as proposed, caused concern for surrounding residents. “It’s not the kind of women that are coming in, I think, that scare people. We’re not against helping them. But we do have the men’s facility so close by. People are upset having so many people coming in, especially since they’re transient. They won’t care about the neighborhood as much as we will. If somebody only lives there for three months at a time, how much are they going to care about it? These people cannot contribute to the neighborhood. It’s just in the nature of the setup.” Other neighborhood resident also voiced concerns about the possibility of the occupants loitering in the neighborhood during hours when they were not at the facility and about the possibility of the residents relapsing into criminal behavior.

Commissioners sympathized with the neighborhood’s concerns over the population density at the site and complaints about exclusion from the decision-making process. “The problems that we heard testimony about were from any type of transitional housing; it’s not the applicant,” said Commissioner Dave Sullivan, who moved to deny the conditional-use permit. “The applicant can’t control the economy; the applicant can’t control the state; and the state of the economy could drive a good business out and have a fly-by-night business come in. As a result, we have to go with the standard that this use has the potential to cause much more significant problems than other prohibited uses.”

After much discussion, the Commission voted 7-0 to deny the permit. “It’s a very close call,” said Commissioner Chris Riley. But he concluded that the layout and space for the new facility were not satisfactory. “This building is not a good fit for this facility,” he said. “It’s not an ideal setting. I know that’s a problem in the central city, especially when there’s density.”

Outgoing Commission Chair Lydia Ortiz urged the group to continue its efforts to find another site for the facility for women, but said she wasn’t satisfied the 5117 N. Lamar location was appropriate. “I think that it does feel like it is sort of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole,” she said.

Parks board nixes marina plan twice

Two Lake Austin homeowner associations—both with high-powered attorneys—squared off at last week’s Parks and Recreation Board meeting.

The arguments over a 45-slip marina were quick and to the point. This was not the first time the Parks Board had considered the case of the St. Tropez Marina. In fact, the developer had been to the board in December. Attorney Terry Irion spoke on behalf of the proposal to put a three-deck marina alongside the upscale St. Tropez Condominiums in Westlake Hills.

Irion made a 15-minute presentation on the St. Tropez marina project, focusing primarily on other projects in the area that had similar parameters. Irion said the developer had scaled back plans, cutting the slips from 51 to 45 units and the footprint to 18.9 percent coverage. That gave the St. Tropez project a one-to-one ratio between condominium units and the boat slips and the coverage limitations to avoid variances under current code.

Land use planner Darren Davis clearly was frustrated by the board’s decision back in December to deny the last version of the St. Tropez plans. Davis said the project met every standard set out in the current code. He accused the board of making decisions based on feelings and assumptions rather than facts about the project construction.

“We’ve met every single requirement, standard and guideline that’s been written, and we can’t get positive feedback,” Davis said. “The shoreline, the trees, the parking walls . . . Nothing except, ‘I don’t think it’s safe.’ To me, it’s not good enough.”

The St. Tropez Marina, from the navigation standpoint, had as much maneuvering room as many of the other recent boat dock projects approved by the Parks Board, Irion said. He challenged the Navigation Subcommittee to come up with data that would prove that the St. Tropez Marina would be unsafe compared to other Lake Austin projects.

Attorney Jay Hailey represented the homeowners against the project, most from the neighboring Peninsula Condominiums. Hailey argued that the Parks Board needed to trust its instincts in the St. Tropez case. It didn’t take a safety expert, as some suggested, to understand that a triple-decker marina made no sense.

Hailey stressed that the Parks Board was well within its discretion to deny the St. Tropez project. Even if the footprint of the St. Tropez project were shrunk to 20 percent, the height of the project would still be three stories. The project may not violate the letter of the law, but it certainly violated the intention of the city’s ordinances, Hailey said.

“Think of the number of boat docks in compliance with the shoreline,” Hailey said. “That’s too many boats in too small an area.”

The handful of Peninsula Condominium residents who addressed the board said they could support boat docks at St. Tropez but only single-level docks. Jane Capron said comparing the dimensions between the Peninsula and St. Tropez was irrelevant when the Peninsula offered boat slips to 14 boats and St. Tropez would provide slips to 45 boats.

The boats also would pass under Westlake Drive, which has no shoulder or parking access. “As we have all said, we do not deny their right to build boat docks, but it should be compatible with the area and the safety concerns,” Capron said.

None of Irion’s arguments made much of an impact with the Parks Board, which continued to side with Commissioner Clint Small’s recommendation. Small chairs the Navigation subcommittee and told the board he had heard nothing that would dissuade him from his decision to decline to recommend the boat dock.

Small was strongly opposed to setting a precedent with a three-story dock on Lake Austin. Small and fellow Commissioner Jeb Boyt had visited the St. Tropez site and both agreed that the small space would not provide a safe navigation area for dozens of boats. Two boats may be able to pass side-by-side, but more than two would clearly present a problem if multiple boats—far less stable when idling than cars—were forced to wait to come and go.

The final vote on the measure was 6-0-1, with Commissioner Leonard Lyons absent. Commissioner Hector Ortiz, still new to the board, was not comfortable casting a vote on the issue and abstained from the final vote.

Historic Landmark Commission to hear from task force . . . Betty Baker, chair of the Historic Preservation Task Force, will appear at the HLC tonight to give commissioners a verbal report on the task force’s recommendations. Baker said the written report would be completed and given to the City Council this week . . . Design Commission meets tonight. . . The Design Commission will hold a special called meeting to hear about the planning process and make recommendations to the City Council. The meeting, scheduled to begin at 5:45pm, will be in the 8th Floor Conference Room at One Texas Center . . . Yard parking . . . The Council last week approved on consent an ordinance amendment allowing neighborhood planners to prohibit residents from parking vehicles in front and side yards. The Planning Commission recommended the change . . . A difficult case . . . The City Council last week approved single-family-6 on second reading only for a 9-acre tract at 3206 West Slaughter Lane, a property “wholly or partially within the Recharge Zone of the Edwards Aquifer,” according to Ron Thrower of Thrower Design. The land was platted in 1978 for townhouse development and could proceed under that plan, without regard to the SOS Ordinance. Under a scenario applying the SOS ordinance, Thrower opined that “the limited amount of uplands would allow 5,100 square feet of development prior to the perimeter roadway deduction required by Code. These deductions reduce the allowable impervious cover of the site to 0 square feet.” The property now has only one house. The property owner has entered into a restrictive covenant with the city promising to use Integrated Pest Management and incorporate the city’s Grow Green native and adaptive plants list when he begins development. Sarah Crocker represented property owner Orrin Shaid. Council Member Daryl Slusher voted against the motion .

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