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Marathon Council session yields Oak Hill land plan

Thursday, October 30, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Austin City Council, in a marathon session that took hours to complete and kept them in the chambers until the wee hours, approved the land use map and neighborhood plans for Oak Hill West and Oak Hill East last week.


The Oak Hill neighborhood plan is unique from a number of perspectives, not the least of which is its location on environmentally sensitive land. That is a first for a city neighborhood plan. The Oak Hill process has been marked by the push and pull of those who want density around the “Y” high enough to put in a town center and transit-oriented development versus those who consider the land over the Barton Springs recharge zone to be too environmentally sensitive to develop with anything more minimal density.


Early in the process, Council Member Laura Morrison made one of the more significant motions, which was to “de-densify” the Oak Hill zoning categories, noting that staff analysis showed it would be unrealistic – if not downright impossible under the Save Our Springs ordinance – to put anything more than MF-3 within the Oak Hill plan boundaries.


Early criticism of the plan offered dire predictions about the potential number of housing units and amount of commercial space at the proposed Town Center.


“The city staff did their own analysis and said, from a practical standpoint, we won’t really get more than MF-3 at build out,” Morrison said after the vote. “And that resulted in much more reasonable numbers. We kind of codified that and put the pragmatic aspects into the actual code and kept the FLUM categories.”


That vote, along with support to incorporate aspects of the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance into the Oak Hill plan, raised the comfort level among environmentalists. During the discussion, Morrison said the Hill County Roadway Ordinance would offer a “more natural feel” along the larger roadways through Oak Hill. Recognizing the area’s rural character was important to the plan’s critics.


A FLUM vote, however, does not exclude the possibility of denser development at some future date; it is simply a preference. Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken, who is well known as an advocate for mixed-use and transit-oriented development, made sure that denser projects were not necessarily off the table at some future date, as long as it goes through some type of Council approval process.


“That’s not to say (upzoning) couldn’t possibly happen; just that it would need a neighborhood plan amendment, and it indicates the density we’re going to be expecting out there,” McCracken clarified during discussion. “I think that’s trying to marry up what we really realistically will see out there with what’s in the plan will be helpful to allay the concerns that we’ve heard expressed about having exorbitant densities being able to be built out in the FLUM.”


Council also considered contested tracts on both the FLUM and the zoning map. Save our Springs Alliance alone brought in 23 pages of contested cases. A number of cases along US 290 West were postponed. In one case, agent Ron Thrower had filed a zoning case in anticipation of the FLUM, asking to bring both the FLUM and the zoning case for his particular tract on US 290 back for discussion.


Some of the most contentious cases were along SH 71, where it appeared everyone had a different idea of a preferred zoning category. In general, city staff recommended zoning for neighborhood serving retail and commercial uses, while the planning contact team recommended large lot rural land use. Groups such as Save Oak Hill and Save Our Springs Alliance supported lower density.


The further away lots were from major highways and the closer they were to environmentally sensitive land, the lower the density recommended by staff.


Council split on the 11-acre Waters tract. Jackie Waters told Council she and her husband Ron had agreed to plat early, but that the additions to the neighborhood – two subdivisions, the expansion of the hospital and the creation of the West Park PUD – no longer gave the area a rural firm. It was clearly suburban, Waters said.


Post-annexation, the Waters proposed SF-6-CO. That would provide up to 60 units – which Waters termed “too high” – but would provide options for cluster housing. The Waters proposed limiting the property to 37 units, which is roughly what might be allowed under SF-2. Now, well into the process, the neighboring Loma Vista subdivision was petitioning for RR or SF-1 zoning on the Waters’ property. A new neighborhood contact team voted to oppose the Waters proposal.


Jeff Howard, who represented the Waters, argued that the proposal made by the couple was in line with Council’s commitment to sustainability, efficient in-fill and diversity of housing, as well as neighborhood compatibility.


“The Waters tract proposal at SF-6 has come to you after two years and many, many hours of public debate and discussion and meets all of those objectives, every one,” Howard said. “What the neighborhood wants is for you to do more of the same, more of the same old large lot, sprawl-inducing policies that may keep that cul-de-sac exclusive, but it doesn’t further those goals.”


Neighbors protested, saying cut-through traffic would come too close to homes. Due to the placement of roads, a quarter of the neighboring subdivision would be affected by the traffic off the Waters tract. Shortcuts into town, off the freeway, would make high traffic counts unavoidable. One neighbor said the Waters simply wanted to avoid subdividing the property, which would put the tract under scrutiny for traffic issues.


Council split over a compromise on the Waters tract. The owners were ready to agree to 30 units. On a 4-3 vote, Council approved SF-1 with a conditional overlay of 15 units. Council Members Brewster McCracken, Randi Shade and Sheryl Cole voted against the motion, considering 20 units a better compromise on the tract.

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