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Light development could give Bull Creek PUD edge on approval

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Planned Unit Developments, by their very nature, are fraught with controversy and angst, give and take, variances and concessions. But even though the property owners hired high-powered lawyer David Armbrust to shepherd their proposal through the process, the big question with the Bull Creek PUD seems to be, “Where’s the beef?”

Maybe it’s because this barely developed 54 acres of land on Lake Austin, once in the hands of the city’s historic Mueller family, will remain barely developed. Hedge fund manager David Booth intends to develop no more than a single house with accessory uses on a piece of lakefront land that could draw thousands of dollars per square foot.

“When I heard the presentation from the applicant, I had to ask, ‘Where are all the people? Where are the high rises? What kind of big fight are we going to have? What concessions are we going to trade for community benefits?’” asked Council Member Sheryl Cole. “And then I was told only two people were actually going to live on the property, plus an orchard, and, more importantly, it was going to meet 8 of our 12 Tier I PUD requirements.”

The project also appears to meet Tier II requirements for open space and environmental concerns, given its low density and preservation of the environment. Impervious cover on the tract will remain at less than 15 percent.

The PUD designation is necessary because the owners of the land intend to put a berm up to protect the wildlife habitat of golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireo. They also want to plant somewhere between 200 and 300 olive trees on the property as a buffer to neighboring RM 2222 and might choose, eventually, to sell some amount of olive oil. That could require GR zoning.

“I don’t think there’s any concern about Mr. Booth cornering the olive oil market in Austin, Texas,” Mayor Lee Leffingwell said at last Thursday’s Council briefing. “I think it’s going to be kind of like, the wineries in Central Texas, where they drink all they can and sell the rest.”

The location of the PUD was even a bit nostalgic for Leffingwell. The land is located across from the former Tom Wooten Boy Scout Camp, which Leffingwell attended. The camp, in subsequent years, has moved to Bastrop and all the land Leffingwell once knew for camping has been fully developed with housing.

At one time, Michael and Susan Dell were rumored to be interested in the waterfront Bull Creek property. The original zoning on the property was SF-2, with SF-6 zoning along the waterfront. Neighbors, who protested an earlier proposal for six townhomes on the Lake Austin waterfront, are unlikely to find a better deal on this property, which will remain much as it is today with only minor development.

According to documents on the case, the plan for the Bull Creek PUD is a single-family residence with accessory structures such as a guesthouse, recreation building, storage building, security building, skyspace building, cabana and pool. The skyspace is a lit open space, and the Booths have sponsored its creation in a number of venues in the Houston area.

The house will be placed at the edge of the upper meadow on the property, in order to preserve as much of the ecological elements as possible, according to the explanation of the project. The footprint of accessory buildings, and the guest house, will be minimized. And the land, previously overgrazed by livestock, will be restored and preserved as woodland and prairie meadow.

In addition to the buildings, an olive orchard, gardens, multiple deck areas, terraces, a bird sanctuary and trails are proposed. The owners have even agreed to create wetland marsh areas along the lakefront in order to give ducks a place to stay.

Council Member Mike Martinez backed the rewrite of the PUD ordinance and is a stickler for following its guidelines. On Thursday as he listened to the PUD presentation, however, he had few complaints. This was not the typical PUD — most PUDs are intended for mixed-use development, with some combination of retail and residential – but because of all the concessions the Booths had made on the site and the support of the community, it was difficult to find anything to fault in the proposal to create a PUD on the lakefront acreage, Martinez said.

“I’ve met with the applicant’s agents, and I really do think this (zoning category) is the only way they can achieve all of the things they have committed to doing in a timely manner and in a reasonable matter,” Martinez said. “Usually, when we speak about PUDs, we’re thinking about transit-oriented development and affordable housing – things of that nature – but I don’t think you’re going to see that in this PUD request. Still, they’ve gone above and beyond.”

Thursday’s brief was really just a kick-off to the negotiation process that will occur between property owner and the city. It gave Council a chance to offer some direction on the project, although the only concern raised came from Council Member Laura Morrison, who wanted to make sure neighbors were comfortable with the possible commercial aspects of the olive orchard.

The Bull Creek PUD proposal should be back to Council for a more thorough review in a number of months.

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