Monday, July 19, 2004 by

RMMA: Homeowners association vs. neighborhood association

Some worry about stringent rules under homeowners regime

The Austin Members of the RMMA Plan Implementation Advisory Commission are reviewing possible models for a neighborhood governing structure. Several commission members heard a presentation last week from Bob Burton, an outside consultant for Catellus, who has created the rules and covenants for more than 100 community organizations. Burton presented several different options for the new neighborhood at the old Robert Mueller Airport. While there were substantial differences in the various scenarios, they did have some points in common. They were all based on the homeowners association model rather than the neighborhood association model, and all contained provisions for a committee to review construction to make sure it complies with the community’s architectural and design guidelines, which may be more strict in some cases than city code.

In a homeowners association, such as those for Steiner Ranch ( http://www.steinerranch.com/relax/re_homeowners.html) or Circle C, ( http://www.circlecranch.com/homeowners.htm) homeowners are required to join the organization and pay dues. Those dues pay for the maintenance of common areas such as parks and swimming pools. The association also has enforcement authority over deed restrictions, covenants, and design and architectural guidelines. That includes the ability to assess fines, require changes to construction projects, and even to foreclose on properties if the owners fail to pay their dues or fines. In neighborhood associations, membership is traditionally voluntary, and while there are dues the association usually does not have authority to enforce deed restrictions or covenants except through a civil lawsuit. A modified form of the homeowners association, or property owners association, has also been used in new, mixed-use developments such as Celebration Florida and the redevelopment of Denver’s former Stapleton Airport ( http://www.stapletondenver.com/main.asp ). While homeowners associations do assume some governmental functions, their board meetings are in most cases not required to be open to the public under Texas law.

Greg Weaver of Catellus, the project’s master developer, told RMMA Commissioners that many Austin neighborhoods had operated under homeowners associations at one time, but the governing bodies tended to fall by the wayside as neighborhoods aged and new residents arrived. For the Mueller redevelopment, Weaver said, the bylaws would be constructed to encourage homeowner participation in civic life and the election of board members for different neighborhoods within the development. “It attracts a person who is really involved in their neighborhood,” concurred Bob Burton. “These are really means to try to create a sense of community. It’s a means to promote interaction among people within this group, to get to know your neighbor and your area. “

Under the scenarios laid out by Burton, the covenants, design guidelines, and bylaws for the homeowners association would need to be in place before the arrival of the first residents. “These are trying to strike a balance between orderly development and sale of the property within the community, the interests of the surrounding communities, and the needs of the future residents; who aren’t really properly able to speak right now, so we may have to kind of project what may be of interest to them,” he said. “They’re really a template in a lot of ways. They’re not the end—it’s what you make of them. It’s kind of a launch pad, and it’s up to the community to use those documents to realize its vision. “

The RMMA Commission also received a memo from neighborhood resident Claire Morris, outlining some of the strengths and limitations of homeowners associations, also known as property owners associations (or POAs), in Texas. “POAs are viewed are reactionary to any violation of the codes, covenants, and restrictions, and are often willing to sue over infractions for fear of otherwise setting a precedent for deviation from the restrictions,” she wrote. “The POA board is often structured as a corporate board with attendant fiduciary duties that require strict protection of property values. This duty does not lend itself well to the deliberation and pursuit of social goals.” She also warned that detailed restrictive covenants could serve as a source of conflict, as neighbors file complaints against one another over minor violations.

RMMA Commission Chair Jim Walker shared those concerns, noting that the covenants and restrictions could be drafted so that it is difficult for owners to make modifications to their homes, resulting in a “cookie cutter” feel to neighborhoods that the commission is trying to avoid. “The modifications are what will make this neighborhood a unique neighborhood, rather than a builder product here and a builder product here,” he said. “There’s a fuzzy line in there somewhere. What makes Austin neighborhoods really cool is that they’re very eclectic. But Weaver assured Walker that the design and architectural guidelines could be drafted to encourage diversity. “You want to encourage people to do something different and be unique,” he said. “The design guidelines will leave flexibility…where they don’t say what color shutter or what color the roof has to be.” Walker also expressed concern that association elections would only be open to property owners, whether they be residential or commercial, since there will likely be tenants within the neighborhood. Burton advised that a the association could be structured to allow for the participation of renters, if that was desired by the parties involved.

The Commission took no action on the item, which was posted for discussion only, and the group lacked a quorum. The matter can be expected to resurface, however.

Activists plan for expanding greenbelt

A coalition of Southwest Austin neighborhood associations and environmental organizations can now add the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District to the list of groups willing to endorse the concept of a design charrette for the area. The coalition is pushing for the community meeting to promote the idea of a greenbelt stretching from Zilker Park through Southwest Austin to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. A list of supporting groups and a map of the area are available at http://www.austinaction.org.

According to local environmental activist Steve Beers, who presented the idea to the BSEACD Board, a community meeting could help ensure that open space tracts over that portion of the Edwards Aquifer are strategically arranged to provide the maximum benefit. "The same green area that is a buffer between a neighborhood and a store is also used for retention and irrigation, is also a karst preserve, is also a recreational facility and is also a transportation corridor for non-motorized transportation," he said. "That's the kind of things a design workshop would look at." The final result of a community design meeting, he theorized, could function like a neighborhood plan and serve as a guide to developers on community priorities.

The coalition's vision for a network of trails and open space is facing several significant obstacles in the form of four large tracts, all of which are slated for major retail development. Those include the S.R. Ridge tract, the site of a Lowe's Home Improvement store currently tied up in a court battle, the Forum PUD and another 8.5 acre tract owned by a division of Wal-Mart. Environmental groups, including the SOS Alliance and SBCA, have been actively involved in trying to prevent development slated for some of those locations. But Beers said that a greenbelt could still exist even if the various big box retail outlets planned for those tracts are built, as long as the individual landowners were willing to adjust their designs to allow accessible open space . "If each of these developed in a piecemeal fashion, we lose the chance to have a greenbelt trail system," Beers said. He told board members that representatives of the Forum PUD would be willing to meet with the coalition. "They already have an extensive trail and greenbelt system planned, and they are interested in talking about linking up."

Should one or more of the landowners be unwilling to participate, Beers said the project could still go forward. "If there is no cooperation from the landowners, you can readily route around them with a hike and bike trail . . . there's always streets and sidewalks," he said. So far, the coalition has been working primarily with community groups on the proposal in an effort to build public support. The idea has been presented to the city’s Environmental Board and the Parks and Recreation Board, but neither has taken an official position. Beers said some of the landowners, including the owners of the S.R. Ridge site once slated for a Wal-Mart, had not yet been contacted about the idea. "They're going to be the harder nuts to crack, in a way," he said. "Perhaps if they see a large group of people want this and see it's in their interest they'll sit down and have a discussion." Ridge is suing the City of Austin and Stratus Properties over Wal-Mart’s decision to abandon pursuit of the site, so their interest in a greenbelt seems unlikely, to say the least.

The BSEACD board voted 5-0 to endorse the idea of a design meeting, without committing to take part should the meeting ever take place. "I certainly support the concept," said Board Member David Carpenter. "Anytime you have a greenbelt trail, it would not be on conflict with what we do." Board Member Jack Goodman urged Beers and the environmental community to work with the Zoning and Platting Commission and the City Council. Avoiding government agencies, he said, "is like going around your elbow to get to your thumb." He suggested to Beers that supporters of the project take a more direct approach, since the four tracts Beers identified are all within the city's jurisdiction.

Hospital district board search continues . . . The City Council Health Care Subcommittee will meet again at noon today to continue interviewing those on a short list for the board of the Central Texas Health Care District. Travis County Commissioners have finished their interviews and could decide on their choices as early as Tuesday . . . Music network contractor receives check . . . As anticipated, City Manager Toby Futrell advanced a little more than $14,700 to the Kenneth Threadgill Music Project, which manages the Austin Music Network, on Friday. (See In Fact Daily, July 16, 2004.) Along with the check, Futrell sent a stern letter to the station’s general manager, Louis Meyers, seeking “a detailed plan outlining how all contract terms will be met.” Meyers is expected to explain “how AMN will meet its financial obligations, including any reductions in workforce,” as well as “a detailed revenue and expense budget for the remainder of the contract period,” and “any recommendations regarding a transition plan for the future management of AMN.” The deadline for responding is July 27. Futrell’s letter said, “Solely because I am concerned that AMN employees will go unpaid for work already performed, I am reluctantly advancing these funds so that AMN will meet its July 16, 2004 payroll obligations. The City has no liability at all for this obligation, which KTMP created without adequate resources to fund.” As outlined in Friday’s In Fact Daily, Meyers has reached an agreement with ACTV to move the station’s current programming to ACTV at the end of the current contract, Oct. 1. The City Council will have an opportunity to weigh on that move at its next meeting, July 29 . . . Last man standing . . . The story of how Patrick Rose beat Rick Green in the November 2002 election for Representative from Hays County should be fun to watch. Set your Tivo or your VCR if you won’t be around to see the show Tuesday at 9pm on KLRU . . . Mark Littlefield, who later ran Brewster McCracken’s successful campaign for City Council, was campaign manager for Rose. Matt Curtis, who worked in that campaign and in McCracken’s Council office before moving over to assist Mayor Will Wynn, is having a party to watch the screening at the Blind Pig Pub at 417 E. 6th Street, starting at 8:30pm Tuesday . . . Meeting tonight . . . The Electric Utility Commission will meet at Town Lake Center at 6pm. Their brief agenda includes election of a new commission chair . . . The Codes and Ordinances Committee of the Planning Commission is scheduled to meet at 4:30pm in the 5th Floor Conference Room of One Texas Center. They will talk about proposed changes to the ordinance governing designation of historic landmarks and tax breaks associated with the designation. (See In Fact Daily, July 16, 2004.)

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