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Council rejects super majority requirement for lakeside PUDs

Friday, May 22, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Save Town Lake was willing to dismiss its lawsuit against the city over the Lady Bird Lake waterfront overlay last night if Council was ready to agree to super-majority votes on lake shore Planned Unit Developments, or PUDs. The majority of the Council, however, was not persuaded that they should require developers of future PUDs to convince six of seven Council Members to vote for their projects.

(Save Town Lake sued the city in 2007 over the rewritten regulations that caused the Council to appoint a task force and look at the question yet again. Save Town Lake won the standing question but little else has happened.)

Election or no election, lawsuit or no lawsuit, incoming or outgoing members, Council refused to take a step towards making large-scale development one step short of impossible on Lady Bird Lake. In the end, Save Town Lake couldn’t manage to swing more than two votes on its desire to see super-majority approval of PUDs.

Neighborhood activist Jeff Jack, questioned by Council Member Laura Morrison, made the pitch: Get rid of PUDs, and the lawsuit was gone. Add a super-majority vote on PUDs, and the lawsuit was gone. It was Council’s choice.

Morrison, former Austin Neighborhoods Council president, made the super-majority motion. And incoming Mayor Lee Leffingwell agreed to second it, rather reluctantly, because he said it might be a good interim stop-gap measure while the reconstituted waterfront overlay advisory board worked to define community benefit bonuses to be exchanged for possible height exceptions. The amendment failed, 2-5.

Early in the process, however, Council Member Mike Martinez jumped in to set the tenor of the Council’s argument, saying he never supported one-size-fits all arguments, nor did he doubt where the Council’s values would lie when it came to protecting the Lady Bird Lake waterfront from encroachment.

“Allowing a PUD to be requested is simply that, a request,” Martinez said. “We revised the PUD ordinance, and we haven’t even used it as a tool yet. I hesitate to add another layer on top of that, knowing we have a new PUD ordinance.”

And Martinez was right on that point. He specifically spearheaded the revision to the PUD ordinance to make sure that negotiations over larger-scale PUD development would start, not end, with Council. Given that, Martinez had no problem insisting the threshold would be higher for PUD projects.

Planning Commission was another tool, Martinez said, drawing some scoffs from the audience. Under PUD rules, Council would have to offer up a six-vote super-majority if it attempted to override a vote of disapproval from Planning Commission. 

“I think some of those tools and hurdles are in place,” Martinez said. “We can continue on Lady Bird Lake with PUDs as an option. Requests can be made, but it doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion.”

Council Member Randi Shade expressed her own regret that the bonus provisions were not in place before Council took its vote on the waterfront overlay. In the end, Shade decided it was more important to move the ball forward.

Shade also opened the door to how things might end up being different with a new waterfront advisory group. Many of the changes to Austin in recent years weren’t envisioned in 1985. Shade speculated that many of the concerns kept coming up, despite the same protests, because the city still doesn’t have a clear vision of the ultimate build-out of Lady Bird Lake.

“We still don’t know what we want on Lady Bird Lake,” Shade said. “I think we need to decide what we want, and that’s how you use bonus provisions. We just have not figured that one out yet.”

With the super-majority vote out of the way – no one even attempted to get rid of PUDs – the major decision on the waterfront overlay was done. The rest, more often than not, was tweaking of the ordinance passed on first reading:

·        Shade added language, in a friendly amendment, that would require the City Manager to work with the waterfront overlay advisory board on bonuses;

·        Morrison added language to clarify existing PUDs – yes, current PUDs were exempted but not if there were substantial amendments – which is likely to be reviewed more thoroughly between second and third reading; and

·        Shade suggested a staff recommendation on the waterfront overlay advisory board – a requirement to include members of the Design Commission, Parks Board and Downtown Commission – but then withdrew her motion with further clarification from staff and Jack.

The proposals may or may not go through various boards and commissions. That would be based upon policy, a suggestion, rather than mandate.

The final vote on the ordinance was 7-0. The third, and final, reading of the waterfront overlay ordinance is scheduled for June 11.

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