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ZAP case revives memories of church-neighborhood battles

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Zoning and Platting Commission had no objection to voting in new zoning for St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in North Austin last night but chose to delay the case for another month to allow for more negotiations on local parking issues.


This case had already been delayed once by ZAP, with little progress in the interim. The St. Vincent de Paul church campus, located off Parmer Lane and Lakeline Boulevard in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, recently purchased an additional 45 acres to build an expanded sanctuary, provide more parking, and eventually build what will be the St. Dominic Savio High School in three phases.


The church will eventually serve up to 3,000 families, from both Davis Spring and Avery Ranch subdivisions, church officials said last night. That more than doubles current church membership.


At last night’s meeting, St. Vincent had its share of supporters. A church is no stronger than the members within its parish, and about a half-dozen parishioners were on hand to laud the church and support its new MF-4 zoning, a category intended to both provide sufficient density and dodge some of the city’s commercial-design standards.


City staff, in its recommendation, was more comfortable with GO-CO, a general office zoning category with a conditional overlay intended to limit daily trips. Such zoning, according to the staff recommendation authored by Planner Sherri Sirwaitis, would be sufficient to provide the zoning envelope for the church’s proposed development. 


The Davis Spring community, however, has not been St. Vincent de Paul’s most enthusiastic neighbor, especially on Sunday mornings. At last night’s ZAP meeting, President Dan Harris noted that the community association was willing to negotiate on any aspect of the parking issue except a binding agreement to meet its obligations.


The church, on the other hand, preferred less-binding legal measures, such as setting up Sunday morning “no parking” zones to discourage neighborhood parking. Initial plans are to increase parking from 120 to 420 spots scattered from the church sanctuary to the current Catholic primary school that belongs to the church. Neighborhood association members questioned whether any parishioner – or, more specifically, any woman in heels carrying a small child – would follow such rules.


Attorney Ronald Walker, legal counsel for the Diocese of Austin, said the diocese wanted to work with the neighborhood on the parking issue but the church’s memorandum of understanding with five concessions to neighborhood parking was a “no go” with the Davis Spring Homeowners Association.


“The increased zoning does allow for more parking needs to take place,” Walker said. “We’re going to grow, and this provides for that.”


The church is willing to compromise, Walker said. The issue is how the parish could be held liable for the behavior of members and visitors alike. Harris said that issue – the trust that could be established with a strong legal agreement – was the crux of the issue for the expanded church, rather than a need to create sufficient parking. That, however, is not a zoning issue, as Chair Betty Baker pointed out in her comments about the scope of the zoning proposal.


Commissioner Donna Tiemann noted that parking on a neighborhood street, even in front of a stranger’s house to attend a church service, is not a prohibited use of public right of way. And Baker noted that it was hard for ZAP to deny the zoning change, saying that the proposal was considered reasonable in and of itself.


Commissioner Sandra Baldridge, who admitted that she attends a large church, noted that churches do like to grow, and that involves young children growing into teen drivers. She asked about the church’s growth projections concerning those drivers in the short and long terms, but church officials were unable to come up with a precise answer.


Current attendance is around 1,100 families. Tiemann asked what the growth-projection models were. Walker was a bit vague on this issue, too, but noted that growth at St. Vincent was expected to be consistent with other parishes in the area and that a new parish would be created at around the 3,000-family mark.


ZAP agreed to postpone the vote until February, in the hopes that St. Vincent and Davis Spring would come to a more workable parking compromise.


Baker suggested that both sides limit the number of participants in order to avoid a David-versus-Goliath situation, as it would be too easy for the church to overwhelm the neighborhood with participants.

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