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Historic home's owners face conundrum

Thursday, May 12, 2005 by

Council to hear appeal from commission today

The new owners of an historic home just west of the UT Campus will go before the Austin City Council today seeking a certificate of appropriateness for new construction on the site. B&H Enterprises is seeking permission to build 36 condominiums and two levels of underground parking on vacant land associated with the Maverick-Miller House at 910 Poplar Street, while doing approximately $250,000 worth of work to improve and preserve the historic home itself.

The new owners face two hurdles for their proposed condo project. One is obtaining the certificate of appropriateness, which is required for modifications to historic properties. The Historic Landmark Commission has rejected the owners' request for that certificate, so the company is appealing to the City Council. The other barrier to the project is the historic zoning for the entire property at 910 Poplar. The home itself occupies only a portion of the site, but the entire lot has the historic designation.

"We did not feel it was appropriate to have a large three-quarter-acre tract of land zoned historic with condominium units and two levels of underground parking," explained Mike McHone, who represents B&H. For that reason, the company has requested the removal of the historic zoning from the portions of the site that are currently not developed. Otherwise, the new construction would theoretically be eligible for the tax exemptions normally reserved for historic properties. "We felt that should come on the tax rolls as soon as possible," McHone said. "But we wanted to make sure that the development that we did was compatible with the UNO (University Neighborhood Overlay) guidelines and preserved the historic structure as a landmark that is something to be proud of."

That means McHone has been pursuing the certificate of appropriateness and the modification of the property's historic zoning simultaneously. "I didn't write the Land Development Code. I only have to follow it," he explained to Planning Commission Chair Chris Riley at this week's meeting, where the reduction of the historic zoning area was up for review. "Those two tracks don't mesh in this case and we're as trapped by it as you are."

For commissioners, that meant an unusual procedural dilemma. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky recommended that the commission support the removal of the historic designation from part of the site, contingent upon the Council granting the certificate of appropriateness. But Commission Chair Chris Riley predicted that could cause problems in the future, since the Commission could not know what the Council's decision would be. "That could leave the whole issue hanging indefinitely if the Council denies the certificate," he said. "New plans would need to come forward, that could drag on for years. At some point, if a certificate is granted, our recommendation would kick in and historic zoning would be removed. Our recommendation would be kept running with the case. But we don't even know for sure that it will be a condominium complex." He urged the Commission to wait until after the Council makes a decision on the appropriateness of the proposed new construction. Without that information, he said, "it just seems kind of speculative for us."

But other commissioners, after hearing from the property's former owners and some neighbors of the home, said the Commission should reject the request outright. "I'd rather communicate to the Council that this development is not appropriate for this site, given the historic nature of it," said Commissioner John Michael Cortez, who agreed with opponents of the zoning change that the entire property contributed to the historic nature of the home (see In Fact Daily, March 8, 2005). "I do feel that historic zoning should remain intact for the entire tract. If it wasn't such a great site historically, this would be a tremendous project and I would be completely in favor of it. It has all the elements we're looking for: density, a pedestrian-oriented design, it includes affordable housing, it maintains trees. It has all the great things we like to make other people do. But the entire site is very much contributing to the historic character of the home."

After more debate, Commissioner Cynthia Medlin moved to delay the case. That motion passed on a vote of 6-1, with only Cortez opposed. The case will come back to the Commission on June 28. While McHone did not strenuously object, he did point out that a delay could have financial consequences for his client. "The only reason we're trying to push this is, given the cyclical nature of construction and housing in the University area, we do need to be under construction with something in September." Since UT students would likely occupy the condos, McHone said, any project not finished by August of next year would likely sit vacant until August of the following year. "That is a peculiarity to this particular district. University area properties follow the school year."

County wants help with Walnut Creek

Travis County will turn to the City of Austin to try to address the erosion that is dragging the backyards of homes near Dottie Jordan Park into Little Walnut Creek.

Settlements with local landfills provided the county with $100,000 to address some of the erosion problems along Walnut Creek. Travis County’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department, however, has learned that the money won’t go far, especially when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has restricted the settlement to erosion control projects rather than the study of erosion in the watershed.

County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said it only makes sense that Austin plays a role in the erosion control on the properties, given that the area is sandwiched between areas of Walnut Creek that belong to the city. And, as county staff pointed out, the city was far better equipped than the county to study and handle erosion problems.

“We need to go to the City of Austin and say, ‘Let’s sit down and see how we would bring a consultant on to address this,’” Daugherty said. “We can talk about buying a few properties out and that may help one or two people, but what we’re really after is, ‘How do we take this issue on?’ And the sooner, the better.”

County Judge Sam Biscoe, who also lives in the general area, had addressed the issue in an email to the court, suggesting the Court consider taking on the problem, either through internal staff or a consultant. Joe Gieselman, executive director of Transportation and Natural Resources, admitted the department was overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle erosion control issues.

County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said it was time to address the erosion issue, especially along Quiette Drive, where the erosion problems were so bad that the backyards of properties were literally falling into Walnut Creek. Sonleitner suggested that the Walnut Creek issue was as significant as the one in the Timbercreek subdivision.

Gieselman said he saw the Walnut Creek project in three phases: defining the scope of services on the project; determining the extent of the resources needed to complete the work; and putting resources to the task of getting the job done. He promised to consultant the city to determine exactly who could offer what in the Walnut Creek project.

“ John (Kuhl) and I have talked about this and gone through all the options,” Gieselman said. “Our best choice would be hiring an outside consultant and getting the expertise that we need and the additional resources to help us supplement the staff.”

The Walnut Creek watershed produces some of the most significant issues to the city, so it would be logical the project would be a partnership, possibly with the US Army Corps of Engineers and funding through Congressman Michael McCaul’s office, Sonleitner said. These are issues that involve the county and those outside the county.

Regional water quality plan approved

Facing a May 30 deadline to submit its final plan to the state, the Regional Planning Committee of the Water Quality Protection Planning Project gave tentative approval to a final draft of the Regional Water Quality Protection Plan. The group, charged with developing the plan for the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, met at Dripping Springs City Hall last night to discuss the plan.

Committee members went through a laundry list of comments on the plan submitted by stakeholders, agencies and members of the public, compiled by a consulting firm hired to help draft the plan. Most of those comments came during or after last month’s public hearing at the Salt Lick in Driftwood. (See In Fact Daily, April 14, 2005.)

Some board members had reservations regarding some specific portions of the plan, but all were ready to go forward with it.

“It is probably the best plan any of us is likely to see in our lifetime,” said Craig Smith of the Barton Spring Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. However, Dripping Springs Mayor Todd Purcell said that even as they are approving the plan, several bills in the Texas Legislature could render the plan moot. “We recently passed a resolution endorsing this plan and against the bills that could affect it,” he said. “We are concerned they there is a move to take away local control from our community. It’s about we, as a community, being able to make the decisions that affect our area.”

That sentiment was echoed by Austin City Council Member Daryl Slusher. “I am please that we are to approving something that goes this far in protecting the aquifer,” he said. “The City of Austin is willing to work to protect what we are approving here. There are bills in the Legislature that could derail all the work that has gone into this, and we stand ready to fight those bills. We agree with the sentiment that local control is important to water quality.”

Some board members said they were supporting the plan, even though their constituencies may not agree with it. “Four years ago, Bee Cave enacted limits on water and development, and our rules work,” said Bee Cave Alderman Mike Murphy. “However, I find this plan to be too drastic. Our experience in instituting our guidelines has resulted in several lawsuits and other problems for the council to support this. It’s just a little too far out there. But we do support the effort to get it done. “

In reviewing the public comments made on the draft plan, several comments raised concerns over the impervious cover limitations, particularly those that are more strict that those in the SOS ordinance. Other major concerns involved transferable development rights and the economic implications of the plan.

The board voted to accept the consultant’s responses to the inquiries, and to have those integrated into the final plan. Following that, the board voted unanimously to accept the final draft in order to expedite the plan to make it available to send to the Texas Water Quality Board by May 30. That deadline is for the plan to qualify for one or more grants from the TWQB.

Board members plan to meet again on or before June 1 to review and approve the final draft of the plan from the consultant. The board also authorized Executive Director Terry Tull to seek a short extension on the deadline from TWQB if one is needed for the consultant to complete the plan.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Counties oppose takings bill . . . The Conference of Urban Counties, like Central Texas environmentalists, is gearing up to fight House Bill 2833 in the Senate. At a luncheon on Wednesday, CUC said the bill stripped counties of many of their powers by making regulatory controls cost prohibitive. Many current regulatory actions could be considered a “ taking.” CUC said the bill would turn development into colonias because counties could not regulate afford to enforce their own regulations . . . AMOA may move forward . . . The Austin Museum of Art (AMOA), which at one time had planned a 125,000 square foot museum across from Republic Square, is now contemplating a much smaller public space at the same location. The Council will consider an amendment to a contract with AMOA that would allow the museum to work with a developer to create a multi-use project on the old Jail House Block, bounded by Third, Fourth, San Antonio and Guadalupe streets. The museum portion of that project would be at least 25,000 square feet, according to information provided by the city. The city’s financial interest is in the parking that AMOA would provide . . . PAC still pondering . . . Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield said the APA PAC, which is expected to endorse Place 3 candidate Jennifer Kim, would continue to discuss their next move and might be ready to announce a decision today. The group previously had endorsed Gregg Knaupe . . . Today’s Council meeting . . . At least one controversial item will likely not be discussed during today's Council meeting. Attorney Steve Drenner said Wednesday that some Council members have suggested mediation for opponents in the Gables at Westlake zoning case. Both sides are amenable to mediation, he said, so it seems likely that matter will be postponed . . . Consensus on design guidelines . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken said Wednesday that his stakeholder group had reached a consensus on development orientation and building design, the two remaining items to be decided. Those items are on today's agenda and McCracken expects them to win approval without dissent . . . Evening break for the Mayor . . . Mayor Will Wynn will present award-winning PBS filmmaker Dante James with an honorary citizenship certificate at 7pm tonight at the Austin Film Festival screening room. Following the presentation, James will speak about his project, " Slavery and the Making of America," a four-part series that aired on PBS in February. James' visit to Austin is part of a national campaign to honor civil rights leader James Farmer . . . Information requested . . . An attorney has filed a public information request for records showing what time calls came in to 911 to report the February fire at Midtown Live and transcripts of the calls . . . Downtown ideas sought . . . The City of Austin's Cultural Arts Division invites those interested in downtown to offer their ideas on ways to invigorate the area with visual arts and cultural vitality at a community charrette this Saturday from 9am-3pm at the Waller Creek Center, 625 E. 10th St .

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