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Committee examines Barton Springs Zone redevelopment expansion

Friday, May 7, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin continues to wrestle with how to approach development in the areas covered by the 1992 Save Our Springs (SOS) ordinance. The most recent pertinent case came before a subcommittee of the Environmental Board on Tuesday. Though officials there were able to narrow their options down to a list of three, no action was taken.


Of concern is whether or not the city should offer a zoning exception to a developer who would like to transform a trailer park into a day care facility. If it agreed to do so, how many more properties would or should it allow to receive the same treatment?


“The nut of the issue, as I understand it … is that if a tract has been zoned commercial by Council and is in the Barton Springs Zone,” said Environmental Officer Pat Murphy, “is there any interest in allowing those sorts of properties to take advantage of the redevelopment exception that currently applies to only existing commercial development.”


That exception allows such properties to be redeveloped if the tract is not in compliance with watershed regulations and the effort includes certain mitigation acts that might make it more environmentally friendly. These include the possible purchase of extra land that would remain without impervious cover and could therefore be used to bring down that percentage, and “water quality controls that are compliant with the SOS ordinance.”


Currently, the exception can only be used for commercial properties. Thus far, the city has ruled that the trailer park-to-day-care project is not eligible by existing standards. Thomas McDill, the engineer on the day care project, disputes this.


At Tuesday’s briefing, staff offered the subcommittee a presentation that aimed to paint a larger picture of the overall situation. In it, they detailed 48 existing properties that had been zoned commercial but were not currently being used in that role. Of these, they identified three or four properties that had the same general characteristics as the would-be day care: They are in the recharge zone, they have commercial zoning, they have no existing commercial development, and they each have an onsite sewage facility (OSSF).


By the end of the meeting, the subcommittee had outlined its three options. First, it could do nothing; second, it could limit any approval of the exception to include only properties in the recharge zone that have a OSSF, which would effectively limit the scope of the exception to four properties; third, it could open the exception up to all properties that had been zoned commercial but were not in use as such.


McDill told In Fact Daily that, no matter the outcome, he believes the property can still be developed. “We have two legal opinions that show that this site qualifies under the rule the way it’s written today,” he said. In one of those opinions, attorney Jeffrey Howard of McLean and Howard writes that the phrase that limits the redevelopment to properties with existing commercial uses “is an unfortunate hold over from early discussions about the content of the redevelopment ordinance and was not intended to actually be in the code.”


In the letter, Howard notes that he “served approximately 15 months on the citizen’s taskforce that helped develop this section of the code.”

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