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Champions granted another 8-year site plan extension on RM 2222

Friday, November 6, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Attorney Michael Whellan won yet another reprieve for the Champion sisters last night, extending the existing site plan on a proposed commercial tract at the intersection of Loop 360 and RM 2222 for another eight years.

The Champions’ land holdings, one observer suggested, are the zoning cases that may actually outlast a generation of reporters and others at City Hall. Sixteen years after an original agreement between the family and the city, the sisters were back at Council to ask for more time to continue plans on a 9-acre lot they are still waiting to develop.

This did not make the local neighborhood coalition, CONA 2222, happy at all. But it could be said that their attorney Brad Rockwell might have lost some of his momentum at Council when he proclaimed the three elderly sisters in the audience “speculators,” a comment that drew some amused glances from the dais.

“As they admit, they’re not really prepared to develop it. They’re sitting on it. They’re speculators,” Rockwell said in his presentation to Council. “As far as the point that they’re paying property taxes on this property… I would suggest this property is grossly undervalued and under taxed.”

Still, that land has been taxed for about 100 years, and the Champion family continues to pay the tax bill, Council Member Randi Shade drolly noted.

“How can you call them speculators if they’ve been there for 100 years?” Shade asked. “There is some sense of right here. The motion is not just being made because there’s no worry for the city. There is some responsibility on our part for the agreement we entered into with them… These are not speculators.”

And, Shade added, the Champions did not create the additional traffic around their site. That traffic came from the various subdivisions created up and down RM 2222, subdivisions that now seemed so inclined to protest any potential traffic that development of the Champions’ lot might bring to Loop 360 and RM 2222.

At Shade’s suggestion, an elderly Josie Champion made her way to the microphone to address the Council about the emotional toll of all the recent delays.

“We have done everything,” said Champion, acknowledging the value of the land, which is probably some of the priciest in the city. “We have hired the best professionals that this city has to offer. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to develop the land, and we have tried to incorporate the city’s values wherever we can. We’d appreciate you voting for us tonight.”

The neighborhoods made a number of arguments, none of which stuck with the majority of the Council, including procedural changes that would have meant an update of environmental requirements; that the site plan had expired Nov. 1; and putting the owners through the site plan process in an attempt to force them to change their site plans.

According to the Champions agreement, the city’s 1993 development regulations apply to the site. And, unless the site plan changed significantly, those 1993 regulations would apply to any new site plan filed by the Champions.

In a discussion more theoretical than anything else, the Lake Austin watershed ordinance of 1993 that applies to the tract was compared to the comprehensive watershed ordinance of today. The new ordinance set lower impervious cover, less development on slopes and more requirements for water quality. But that difference still would not apply to the Champion tract, according to the Council’s legal counsel.

That convinced Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who said if there were any chance that new environmental regulations could come into play, he would have voted against the site plan. Legal counsel, however, suggested just the opposite.

“If I thought that the current development standards with regard to environmental criteria could be enforced, I would not enforce an extension,” Leffingwell said. “I believe that the grandfathered rights are legally sound, and I will support the motion.”

Council Member Chris Riley echoed Leffingwell’s comments, noting that if the neighborhoods considered themselves truly wronged by the process, they could still use the district court as a remediation tool in the case.

Opponents also argued that Whellan had failed to meet the burden of proof for a site plan extension. The option was to meet one of four guidelines set out by code.  Zapalac argued the plan met two of those four guidelines: The plan continues to substantially comply with the parameters required of a new site plan. And the applicant had made a good faith effort to develop the land.

The one argument that did stick with Council Members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison was the traffic impact analysis, or TIA. As Rockwell pointed out, that analysis was based on 1991 traffic figures. The impact of 5,600 cars on the two roadways was clearly different in 2009 than it was in 1993.

In his presentation, planner George Zapalac noted that the traffic from the site would be mitigated, as much as possible, by a single curb cut on RM 2222 and one on Loop 360, with no opportunity to make a left-hand turn on either road. Morrison and Spelman were clearly uncomfortable with the conclusion.

The final vote on the site plan extension was 5-2, with Morrison and Spelman in the minority. Both Morrison and Spelman expressed concerns about changing, and increasing, traffic patterns in the area.

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