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ZAP committee mulling Robinson Ranch

Friday, May 21, 2004 by

New zoning classes invented for 6,000-acre annexation

The Zoning and Platting Commission decided on Tuesday that one of the largest cases ever brought before the commission needed further study. A subcommittee of the ZAP will study the proposed annexation and Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning of Robinson Ranch next week with a proposed recommendation to the full commission at its next regularly scheduled meeting on June 2. The City Council is expected to consider the matter on June 10.

The owners of the 6,000-acre ranch, most of which lies in Williamson County, are in negotiations with the City of Austin to bring the property under the city’s jurisdiction voluntarily. Bringing the land into the city’s limited-purpose jurisdiction, said Zoning Case Manager Greg Guernsey of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department (NPZD), would give the city a level of control over what is built in an area where there is likely to be growing development pressure over the next few years. “This is one of those few areas where you have all the right things come together,” he said. “You have the utility infrastructure that can serve it, and at the same time you have a transportation network that has a great amount of capacity.” Any decision made by the city regarding the ranch will likely have ramifications for decades, as the site is so large it could only be developed gradually. “This is probably the largest zoning case that I can ever recall being brought to the commission,” said Guernsey. “If you started at Cesar Chavez and stopped at about 52nd Street…and then took in the land between MoPac and IH-35…that is the equivalent area. It’s very large.”

The proposed annexation and development agreement lays out several non-standard zoning categories designed to promote clustering of development near major transportation nodes such as a rail line or bus rapid transit station, while at the same time providing setbacks and open space surrounding sensitive environmental features.

The most intense zoning category within the PUD would be called TOD, or “Transit-Oriented Development”. It would allow buildings of unlimited height, a floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of 12 to 1, and 100 percent impervious cover. But it would be restricted to the area immediately surrounding a mass transit stop that also provides for a pedestrian-oriented environment. The TOD category would allow a variety of residential, office, retail, and public uses but would prohibit low-intensity zoning such as single-family.

Most of the land on the ranch would be classified as MXD, for “Mixed”. This would include residential and commercial uses. The standard setback requirements would still apply in this zone, providing some buffers between commercial and residential uses. The third category outlined in the development agreement is OS, for “Open Space”. That category would be applied to land around critical environmental features to protect them from development and pollution.

The significant changes from the city’s standard zoning categories outlined in the proposed development agreement caused some consternation among commission members. Along with concern about the proximity of commercial and residential uses that would be allowed in the MXD zoning, several members wanted further study of the TOD zoning category. The impervious cover, FAR, and height guidelines for that category could lead to the construction of skyscrapers of a magnitude rarely seen outside of the downtown central business district. “Having height limits similar to D-MU (downtown mixed use) and CBD(central business district) in the middle of an undeveloped tract are a little beyond my grasp,” said Commissioner Melissa Whaley Hawthorne. “I would like to hear the thought on that.” Commissioner Keith Jackson, who said he was not ready to commit to the possibility of such dense development, joined her. “Maybe we do want another downtown out there; maybe not. I don’t know,” he said. “There is no doubt that this is a unique opportunity we should take advantage of. It is a very big plus to get this thing voluntarily brought into the city. But it does need to be planned.”

The lack of restrictions within the TOD category proved especially troubling to Commission Chair Betty Baker. “It looks like, almost, that we have the tail wagging the dog. And that should not be,” she said. “We want to be sure they get what they need. It’s a tremendous success…putting this together and bringing it into the city’s jurisdiction. However, I’m using the word jurisdiction because this does not seem like control. There’s almost not a ‘no’ in here.”

Baker, Jackson, and Commissioner John Philip Donisi will serve on the subcommittee studying the proposal. In the meantime, the commission has asked for the NPZD staff to provide additional notification to area residents. The two annexation hearings at City Council on the tract drew no public comment, and only one person from the surrounding neighborhood spoke at Tuesday’s ZAP meeting. Although the city has followed the required notification procedures, only about 300 notices were mailed out. Guernsey explained that there were very few property owners who lived within 300 feet of the borders of the tract, but that he personally had traveled the area posting signs notifying drivers and residents of the impending zoning hearing. At the urging of commission Vice-Chair Joseph Martinez, staff will also contact registered neighborhood groups and officials of the Round Rock Independent School District to alert them of the possible annexation and zoning change. “This is an extraordinary tract of land and I’m trying to protect all of us,” said Martinez.

Baker said the subcommittee would meet on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week to try to understand the proposal. She stated that the ZAP was given insufficient information and insufficient time to consider the matter, whereas staff had been working on the zoning for three months prior to bringing it before the commission. Attorney Richard Suttle is representing the property owner.

Decision expected today on Hays County rock crusher

Aquifer Board to ask for reconsideration if pollution abatement plan is approved

The staff of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is likely to decide today on the acceptability of a water pollution abatement plan submitted by KBDJ LP for its planned rock-crusher plant next door to the Ruby Ranch subdivision in Hays County. KBDJ wants to build and operate a quarry on the site that would involve truck traffic, heavy construction, and other possible sources of pollutants in the sensitive recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer.

The TCEQ requires a plan for any project that could allow pollutants to enter groundwater in the zone. If the TCEQ approves the KBDJ plan, it would absolve the company of liability in case its operation causes harm to the underground formation that is the source of much of the area’s drinking wate, according to Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) hydrogeologist Joseph Beery.

At last night’s meeting, the BSEACD board of directors voted unanimously to file a motion for rehearing if the agency approves the permit. Under TCEQ regulations, the district board has only 23 days to take the action.

The board heard public comment from a number of opponents of the plant, mostly residents of Ruby Ranch, located west of Buda near Onion Creek. In addition, they heard a presentation on the status of a report on the sustainable yield evaluation of the Barton Springs segment of the aquifer.

Prominent among the citizen speakers was Dick Schneider, president of the Buda Area Chamber of Commerce and spokesperson for Neighbors Organized to Protect the Environment (NOPE), a group based in Buda organized specifically to fight the rock-crusher project. Schneider asked BSEACD Senior hydrogeologist Brian Smith what kind of effect a quarry at the site would have on the sustainability of water flow in the aquifer.

Smith said “any further extraction” of water would affect the sustainable yield, and outgoing BSEACD President Jim Camp asked that comments and questions about the KBDJ project be postponed until the board specifically addressed that issue later in the meeting.

Addressing possible TCEQ action, BSEACD hydrogeologist Joseph Beery said while the project would likely involve digging to a depth that would cause the quarry to partially fill with water, the district cannot designate the whole quarry as a well, since a well must be within a certain number of feet in diameter.

Precinct 2 Board Member David Carpenter questioned whether Beery should have sought input from directors and hired an environmental engineer before writing a letter to TCEQ detailing efforts that could be made to monitor water quality at the site, should the project go forward.

Beery wrote a letter in response to an email sent by environmental investigator Heather Beatty of the Austin Regional Office of the TCEQ. Beatty requested that Beery provide answers to certain questions about a possible monitoring plan as part of the agency’s review process.

Ruby Ranch resident Scott Nestor, who has experience with rock quarries, said the blasting materials would expose nitrates to groundwater. He also said that sometimes gas tanks are punctured by construction equipment backing into trucks.

“What would 25 gallons of diesel fuel do to a couple hundred thousand gallons of water?” asked Carpenter, who said he has spent years dealing with “hazardous waste sites that started off as pits.”

Nestor said the fuel discharged might be 2,000 gallons rather than 25, depending on the circumstances. “I mean, our wells are very close to this,” Nestor said.

On April 8, TCEQ Water Section Manager Carolyn Runyon sent a letter to Gary Nicholls, an engineer for Westward Environmental, Inc., warning that TCEQ had questions about KBDJ’s abatement plan. KDBJ hired Westward to write the plan.

The letter states, “It is likely that the quarry activity will intersect or be in close contact with groundwater and will potentially allow contaminants direct communication with the Edwards Aquifer.” The letter also expressed concern that “operating vehicles containing petroleum products remain a threat to water quality.”

Runyon’s letter requested a response “no later than May 24, 2004, to avoid the denial of the application.”

TCEQ spokesperson Glen Greenwood said the agency had received more than 60 letters requesting a contested case hearing since March 11 as well as “a very large number of comment letters… Some of those are very, very detailed.”

KBDJ LP is owned by Industrial Asphalt, Inc. which operates a cement company just north of Mountain City in northern Hays County. The area is also home to Texas Lehigh Cement Company. Both operate quarries and plants atop the aquifer.

The district posted notice of a special meeting of the board Monday at 7pm when Camp will gavel his last session to order. Former Buda City Council member Charles Murphy will replace Camp as the Buda-area director. Precinct 3 Board Member Bob Larsen is expected to be elected president at the Monday meeting.

First time success . . . Sarah Crocker’ s daughter, Amanda, made her first presentation before a city board last night, winning a 4-0 vote at the Board of Adjustment on two requests for variances. The board granted variances to decrease the minimum side street setback requirement and the minimum rear yard setback requirement so the property owner could erect a second-story addition to an existing non-complying accessory structure in an SF- 3 residential zoning district. In order to win support from the West Austin Neighborhood Group, the property owner will enter into a restrictive covenant pledging not to use the building as a residence . . . Who’s on First?. . . Don Martin of Martin & Salinas is working on the private Citizens for Mobility campaign effort, but his partner Trey Salinas is not involved in that effort. Martin says his assistance is pro bono. CFM is simply a “support and advocacy” organization, Martin said. He points out that this not an actual campaign because no election is anticipated. However, Paul Saldaña and Kalinda Howe, who work for Adelante Solutions as well, have a contract to work for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority under the Adelante umbrella. In Fact Daily erred when we reported that Martin was working for the RMA . . . ACC groundbreaking today. . . Austin Community College will break ground on its seventh campus at 11:30am today. The site is in South Austin at the Northeast Corner of Manchaca and Stassney Lane. The 91,000 square foot campus is being built in an area that has the second largest number of students attending ACC. The new South Austin Campus will have comprehensive programs in academic transfer and workforce education, as well as in student support services. Commercial Music Management and Visual Communication Design will feature state-of-the-art labs and equipment. The $21 million dollar campus is targeted for a fall 2005 opening . . . PID possibility . . . The East Sixth Street Property Owners Association is still looking to establish a possible Public Improvement District to provide services like tenant recommendations, urban renewal initiatives and representation to the City Council, planner Michael Knox told the Downtown Commission. A taxing district could raise between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, enough to hire a staff member to assist the property owners . . . Where is the study? . . . The Downtown Commission is still waiting on a report from city staff on a proposed east-west mobility study. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’ s Beth Ann Sprengel told the Downtown Commission that she had heard little from city staff on the project and raised concerns that if such a project were put on hold it could cause serious problems in view of the Central Texas RMA’s plans to improve I-35 and MoPac. Once those people exit the improved roadways, they may have nowhere to go, Sprengel told her colleagues on the Downtown Commission.

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