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Travis County OKs Rocky Creek subdivision

Wednesday, October 13, 2004 by

Neighbors, fearing water pollution, had asked for moratorium

Travis County Commissioners issued preliminary plat approval for the Rocky Creek Ranch subdivision and phasing in Southwest Travis County yesterday, declining to enact the moratorium recommended by the project's opponents.

The discussion and executive session on Rocky Creek stretched across the entire day, with the Court making its decision just after 5pm. The McHargue family, owners of Rocky Creek, plans 486 lots on 468 acres on Hamilton Pool Road. Rocky Creek passes through and onto the land of neighbors, within the contributing zone of the Barton Springs section of the Edwards Aquifer.

Rocky Creek's neighbors are fearful that the problems that plagued West Cypress Hills—degradation of Lick Creek following approval of the subdivision's plat by the Lower Colorado River Authority and Travis County—would be apparent at Rocky Creek Ranch, despite the assurances of the new subdivision’s engineer. Developer Rebecca Hudson, joined by attorney David Armbrust and engineer George Murfee, tried to assure the audience that her family was committed to an appropriate development. Half of the land was set aside for development, with an overall density of one unit per acre. Most of the homes are clustered on one-half of the land, with the other half dedicated to a nature preserve. Hudson and her family will continue to live on the land.

"My family has owned this land for 30 years," Hudson said. "I was raised here, and I care deeply about this area."

The county's authority to regulate development is limited. The plat meets all requirements set by the county, Planner Anna Bowlin told the court. Those requirements set the specifics on nuts-and-bolts issues such as block length, street arrangement, drainage easements and utility placement. Plans for Rocky Creek Ranch meet all those standards.

County Judge Sam Biscoe noted that the real hammer on Rocky Creek Ranch came from the conditions on the plat note set by LCRA. The county's guidelines require the subdivision to have water and wastewater service, and the LCRA sets conditions to provide that water service to the property.

The current plat note suggested by the LCRA is that Rocky Creek Ranch should either meet US Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines, or the recommendations of the regional water planning group. Armbrust admitted the developer, given the choice, would pick the Fish and Wildlife guidelines rather than wait for the potential higher guidelines of the regional group.

Those who opposed Hudson's plans wanted a moratorium on all development in Southwest Travis County. That's because three studies are currently underway, and recommendations from those could directly impact area construction: a Hamilton Pool Road group organized by LCRA; a regional water quality group for areas from Southern Williamson through Northern Hays Counties; and a county work group to set standards for development in Southwest Travis County.

Christi Muse was one among a number of speakers who asked the Court to delay what she saw as "massively dense, urban-style subdivisions out in the Hill Country." She asked the commissioners to honor the work of the regional water planning group by setting a moratorium on development until the planning group's work is complete. Approving Rocky Creek Ranch would simply pave the way for additional applications for similar development. Muse and others suggested that the county use the powers allocated by Senate Bill 873 to implement higher standards for development.

Muse pointed out that commissioners had no legal obligation to approve the preliminary plat at Tuesday’s meeting. Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols, however, asserted it was county policy to approve plats if the application was complete, unless the county was sending the applicant back to correct what would be considered deficiencies in the plan.

Jim Phillips, one of 40 plaintiffs in the lawsuit against West Cypress Hills, presented the Court with bottles of water from the east and west branches of Lick Creek. The difference in the sedimentation in the water — the difference between the developed and undeveloped branches of Lick Creek – was apparent from the bottles he displayed. The bottle of post-rain water from the developed branch was cloudy and brown. The post-rain water from the undeveloped branch was cloudy, but not excessively so.

"The slope and soil conditions of West Cypress Hills sound very similar to Rocky Creek," Phillips said. "They don't believe they're going to make the same mistakes, but we're all human, and mistakes will be made. There are no systems in place, no resources in place, no people in place, no regulations in place that will stop what happened in Lick Creek from happening in Rocky Creek."

After the executive session, Biscoe said he could not support the moratorium proposed by subdivision opponents. Expecting a realistic timeline for development guidelines set out from the regional study would be impossible, he said. Biscoe also was concerned about how many subdivision plats the county would have to include in such a moratorium.

County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he could not support the county moving the goal line for subdivisions by proposing a moratorium. Daugherty stated his commitment to continue the process to negotiate with developers and set development standards.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner got a concession from Hudson to roll back density from 16.1 percent to 15 percent. She also got a concession of water-conserving native plants for the subdivision foliage. Commissioner Ron Davis suggested looking into the possibility of more affordable housing on the site.

The commissioners unanimously approved the preliminary plat, upon the condition that rewritten plat notes and plans were presented to the Court in two weeks. Commissioner Margaret Gómez was absent. Nuckols noted that the details of the plan, and water service, would not be finalized until a final plat was presented.

Board of Adjustment says fence may stand

A West Austin homeowner will get to keep his eight-foot privacy fence. The Board of Adjustment voted 5-0 to allow Curtis Hill to keep the fence already installed surrounding his backyard and pool at 1905 Pecos. Half of the fence was already at the eight-foot level when Hill purchased the property, and he installed a two-foot lattice on the top of the portion of the fence that was six feet high. He told Board Members he was unaware of the city's six-foot height limit on privacy fences. "We came from Houston," he explained, "where there weren't any rules like this."

Because of the slope of the property, Hill said, the six-foot portion of the fence did not adequately shield the yard or the pool. "Without the additional lattice, on the front side of the pool there's no privacy at all … there's even a little bit of a security issue," he said. "We added the lattice partly for safety reasons and partly for privacy reasons." He also pointed to the popularity of eight-foot privacy fences in the surrounding neighborhood, providing photographs to document his claims. "There are easily 20 fences like this in the neighborhood," he said.

Blake Tollett of the West Austin Neighborhood Group testified the neighborhood association was opposed to the variance request. "We are sympathetic to the difficult topography," he said. "We do not feel that citing of similar illegal fences as precedent is an appropriate argument for the granting of the variance."

Board Member Frank Fuentes moved to grant the height variance, with additional conditions suggested by Board Chair Herman Thun. "This whole idea of a six-foot fence…somebody picked it out of thin air," Thun said. "It's an arbitrary number. I've always felt that it ought to be adjusted based on the reality of what you're trying to deal with." The motion to approve passed on a vote of 5-0.

Just visiting friends . . . Republican State Rep. Mike Krusee set tongues wagging last night when he showed up toward the end of Democratic State Rep. Elliott Naishtat’s fundraiser. Asked why he was there, Krusee said, “All my friends are here,” and went on to detail his connections to Austin—including the fact that Austin will be the biggest city in his district once Robinson Ranch is annexed. Some political observers said simply, “Krusee wants to be Speaker.” It does seem possible there might be a vacancy in the top House post before the next session starts . . . Leffingwell resigns . . . Lee Leffingwell, who has made it known that he will run for the City Council next spring, has announced his resignation from the Environmental Board, effective October 21, the day after the next meeting. Leffingwell, who has served on the board for the past five years, said that he had consulted with the City Attorney about whether he was required to step down as a result of his decision to run. The answer was negative, but Leffingwell said he thought it would be inappropriate to continue his board service during the race . . . No correction . . . In Fact Daily reported yesterday that Mayor Will Wynn did not in fact support tort reform, although he did sign a proclamation for National Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week. A story about the Mayor’s signing of the proclamation and the use of the proclamation by a tort reform group appeared in Sunday's Statesman under the headline, "Mayor signs on for tort reform." Folks in the Mayor's office were expecting a correction on that headline when they released his comments, including a humorous jab at the headline writer. But the Statesman stands by its story—which seems to be accurate, and no correction of the headline will be forthcoming, either. Here is the part of the proclamation that evidently convinced the reporter that Wynn agreed with the tort reform group: “Whereas, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse groups across the state and their 25,000 supporters hope to heighten public awareness of the problem and how we can all work together to help restore balance, fairness and personal responsibility to our legal system . . .” Reporter Steven Scheibal said there would be no correction, “because there's nothing to correct — at least until someone explains how one can be for restoring balance and fairness to a system, but not for reforming it.” Whenever “ Trial Lawyer Appreciation Week” rolls around, we expect the Mayor will dutifully sign a proclamation that some will interpret as putting him on that side of the issue . . . Edgemond Injured . . . Board of Adjustment Member Betty Edgemond missed Monday night's board meeting. She's being treated at HealthSouth Rehab Hospital for a broken leg suffered in a fall earlier this month . . . The BOA granted a variance to compatibility standards regarding height to allow the Covenant Presbyterian Church at 3003 Northland Drive to tear down an existing building and replace it with one slightly taller. The request had the support of the Allendale Neighborhood Association. The Board also granted a city-initiated request for an eight-foot privacy fence in the 1000 block of East 12th Street . . . Debate party tonight . . . Travis County Democrats will gather for the third presidential debate tonight at Ruta Maya Coffeehouse, 3601 S. Congress Avenue. The party starts at 7pm, with the debate screening beginning at 8pm. This will be the final debate. Absentee voting starts next week.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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