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Some worry about bogus neighborhood associations

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Imagine you have a neighborhood association with the biggest boundaries in Austin, one that encompasses everything within the city limits and entitles you to notices of each and every zoning change or variance that occurs, possibly up to 200 cases per month that you could peruse and attend at your convenience.

Well, you don’t have to pretend. A number of people have done it, declaring themselves to be a neighborhood association that cover city-wide boundaries, entitling themselves to any number of notifications, at city expense.

As an agent who represents property owners on zoning changes, Ron Thrower spends plenty of time looking up neighborhood associations that have some jurisdiction over the property his client wants to develop. Recently, in researching property on Anderson Mill Road closer to RM 620, he came across an organization that had labeled itself the Super Duper Neighborhood Objectors and Appealers Organization, run by a person who claims to hold the office of Great and Powerful Oz, with boundaries that stretch approximately 340 square miles.

“So this one person gets every notice for any property within the 340 square miles of a zoning case, Board of Adjustment case, vertical mixed-use case, neighborhood plan amendment, FLUM amendment, site plan, subdivision and subdivision construction plan, plus any additional notice for any of these applications being set for public hearing to any of the multitude of boards and commissions,” Thrower wrote to commissioners, grousing. “One person causes so much money to be spent, not only by the developer but also city staff time and money.”

How far does that power stretch? Can it stretch to a stranger walking into a meeting and calling for a continuance? Could it lead to someone showing up, time and again, simply with an axe to grind? Should a single person be entitled to claim that he or she actually is a registered neighborhood association of the entire city?

“It’s a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars, which ultimately will be going to be passed along to the developer through fee increases,” Thrower said. “If you think about how many pieces of mail that this person might get, it could be up to 200 pieces a month. And someone who lives 10 miles away can come and ask for a postponement and get it? They always do first postponements, for absolutely no reason. They could even claim they didn’t receive proper notification… There are just so many pitfalls along the way to this. Ultimately, it’s going to become a problem for someone down the line.”

City staff says “Super Duper” is not the first neighborhood organization to register with indiscriminate boundaries. Nothing in the code requires any particular terms on the boundaries of a neighborhood association or, clearly, any particular requirements of a neighborhood association. A neighborhood association can be as small or large as necessary. And protests to a zoning case can be someone who lives in the neighborhood or someone who lives far away.

Former Austin Neighborhoods Council President Jeff Jack has frequently testified on cases he freely admits are not within the boundaries of the Zilker neighborhood. He mentions that right up front in his testimony, and at no time has anyone called to stop him from testifying. Of course, he also doesn’t call for continuances on cases that are not in his neighborhood.

Nothing in code stops Jack from taking that stand at board meetings. And, to date, the validity of a neighborhood association has rarely been a problem when it comes to delaying or pursuing cases. And, to the recollection of In Fact Daily’s memory, Super Duper had not made it on the list of relevant neighborhood associations on the paperwork of any recent zoning case.

The only time, in recent memory, that the legitimacy of a neighborhood association has become an issue was during the La Bare zoning case appeal. The question became whether the contact team – or the neighborhood – could be granted standing in a case of rezoning a space in Lincoln Center for an adult entertainment business. Eventually, the Planning Commission, although it was a bit sketchy, did give the local neighborhood standing to pursue its objections against the venue, although the neighborhood lost the case.

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