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Oak Hill plan gets two more weeks before final vote

Friday, August 8, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

New procedures on the approval of neighborhood plans – a recommendation from a beleaguered Planning Commission – means the Oak Hill neighborhood plan is getting plenty of room to breathe before a final City Council vote on the written plan, its future land use map (FLUM) and the various zoning cases the FLUM will bring.

The Oak Hill plan was the centerpiece of last night’s Council hearings. Both large and complex, the neighborhood plan is the first to be developed in the sensitive Barton Springs recharge zone. During the planning process, the tension has always existed between environmentalists who wanted to protect the area’s creeks and New Urbanists who wanted to see Oak Hill develop into its own self-supporting community, complete with town center and transit station.

What appeared to trump both those concerns was just how city staff turned the vision for the community – which most speakers last night appeared to support – into the FLUM. Even though the FLUM will not be on the table until the next Council meeting, speaker after speaker urged Council to wait on the land use map.

In a letter to planner Maureen Meredith in March, David Richardson, chair of the Oak Hill Planning Contact Team, outlined the community’s concerns: The community did not understand the FLUM and considered it too vague. Some noted certain recommendations that could lead to problems with local landowners. And, of course, many would like to see the highway issue through Oak Hill resolved – toll road or no toll road – before final decisions are made on the Oak Hill plan.

If Richardson was the voice of reason for the community, then Steve Beers represented the fears of a possible “worst-case scenario” in Oak Hill. Beers noted that community surveys indicated a desire for increased commercial services – intended to be represented on the future land use map in the form of an intense town center – but also plenty of green space in the form of buffers, open space and parks. Beers noted that no additional open space was created on the FLUM; on the contrary, it appeared that SH 71 was lined with higher-intensity uses.

During the question-and-answer session with staff following the testimony, Meredith noted that much of the land up and down SH 71 already was zoned for commercial or office use. That was traditional for highways. What would be the proposed alternative if commercial was not the preferred category?

As Richardson said in his presentation, the one thing Oak Hill never wanted to be was a neighborhood with an expressway lined with non-descript development, something akin to what developed along Research Boulevard.

Showing the Council the potential FLUM on the overhead, Beers noted that the FLUM failed to encapsulate the goals set out by the community: additional large lot or single-family housing; existing civic space was rezoned for mixed use; and every single discretionary tract on the map had been upzoned.

“I don’t think that’s a balanced plan,” Beers said. “I think this is taking the template of trying to have very intense land use that might be appropriate in an inner-city area to meet SMART growth goals, but which contradicts 30 years of development on the watershed protection zone.”

Echoing concerns laid out in Richardson’s letter, Beers noted that the vagueness of the categories left Oak Hill with a non-plan plan, one that did not discuss the measures that might be needed for additional infrastructure or water quality protection. In a figure that was bandied about frequently, Beers said that zoning categories proposed on the FLUM could bring up to 100,000 apartments to Oak Hill.

Council Member Laura Morrison took the lead during comments on the plan, walking the careful line between her traditional background as a neighborhood leader and her desire to be perceived by the development community as fair.

Morrison asked if city staff could come up with its own map of potential density because, as Morrison put it, the critic’s proposed possibility of eight downtowns was “awfully scary.” By providing some specifics, the neighborhoods could understand what the actual potential development could bring to Oak Hill. In that way, the community members could get more comfortable with the FLUM.

“If we can do the analysis, that would give us the tool to look at it with and without what are being considered by some to be the ‘strip areas,’” Morrison said. “I’m particularly interested in doing that, as Mr. Beers has done one already, and I think the city should take a look at it so we know what we’re working with.”

Planning chief Greg Guernsey said the creation of a “maximum density” on the Oak Hill plan would be difficult, given that some tracts already would have realistic, and legal, constraints. It would certainly be easier, he said, if the contact team could identify limited areas of concern, to reduce the amount of staff time involved.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell was interested in potential built-out impervious cover, a concern for groups such as the Save Our Springs Alliance. He noted that the current limits on impervious cover should make it fairly easy to determine exactly what the overall impervious cover in Oak Hill might be. Leffingwell noted that less than 4 percent of the land in the Barton Springs zone – and Oak Hill is a subset of that land — was subject to grandfathering.

In his closing remarks, Guernsey said that the intervening two weeks between last night’s hearing and the next Council meeting would give staff a chance to clarify some of the answers to address issues and to sit down with people who had concerns about particular zoning cases.

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