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Planning Commission approves two code changes

Wednesday, June 9, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Two land use code changes that could have been controversial won unanimous Planning Commission approval last night with no opposition. It remains to be seen what the development community will think if the City Council ultimately approves them.

 

One amendment had been sent back to the Environmental Board for comment in April. It basically boils down to this: Should an exemption from the Save Our Springs Ordinance be granted for properties that might have been zoned commercial but are being used for non-commercial purposes? The question arose over an existing mobile home park, known as Courtyard Park, located at 5811 Southwest Parkway.

 

The Planning Commission sent that proposed ordinance change back to the Environmental Board for consideration. There, a subcommittee met diligently on the issue four times, environmental planner Matt Hollon noted last night, and came to two significant conclusions that were then approved by the board and forwarded to the Planning Commission.

 

First, the exemption of the property at 5811 Southwest Parkway should not be a site-specific amendment to the SOS ordinance. The property should also connect to the central sewer system, per the city’s plumbing code, as soon as possible, according to the Environmental Board.

 

Additionally, the Environmental Board encouraged Council to consider the class of properties similar to 5811 Southwest Parkway as a whole and make a decision as to whether such properties should be considered as redevelopment exceptions. Hollon estimated that the commercially zoned yet not commercially used sites would constitute about 50 properties.

 

“It’s not a lot of land, and it’s relatively modest,” Hollon said. “This is more of a planning issue – a zoning issue – than it is an environmental issue. We don’t see this having a major impact on the aquifer.”

 

The Planning Commission approved moving the Environmental Board’s recommendations forward to Council on a vote of 8-0, with Commissioner Dave Anderson absent. Chair Dave Sullivan noted that he had watched the Environmental Board’s discussion of the case and thought the board “hit the nail right on the head.”

 

A second amendment before the commission, voted on separately, concerned the creation of a conservation single-family use under the SF-1 zoning category.

 

Travis County Commissioners a couple of years ago approved the concept of a “conservation subdivision,” which allowed the clustering of homes in the interest of preserving green space. The city approached it on a much smaller scale, talking about a new residential use within property zoned SF-1, according to planner Robert Heil.

 

Under this use, the overall residential density would remain the same although the impervious cover on a portion of a property might increase, Heil said. Structures would be clustered on a lot with commonly owned green space, according to the specifics of the new allowable use.

 

The new category of use would meet all SOS ordinance requirements and be located only on land within the drinking water protection zone, Heil said. Such a use, Heil noted, could be useful in preserving critical environmental features and preserving the maximum amount of open space.

 

Benefits to a potential developer, said Heil, would be limited as to how far infrastructure would have to be extended into a particular property that preserves significant green space. Shared open space could also decrease the overall construction costs for a particular home, Heil said.

 

Legal instruments would force open space to remain open and undeveloped in perpetuity, Heil said. That was intended to allay fears from those who worried that open space might be sold off in 5 or 10 years to someone eager to develop.

 

The concept of a conservation district had been introduced at Travis County. Two years after it was passed, no developer had taken advantage of the new option. Heil attributed that more to the economy than the attractiveness of the option.

 

The city had achieved similar benefits from the use of SF-6 zoning upgrades, with a conditional overlay, to property surrounded by SF-1, Heil said. The downside was the surrounding homeowners’ shared belief that SF-6 was intended to suggest additional density for areas that were clearly still single-family residential.

 

That amendment, too, passed on a unanimous 8-0 vote. Heil, answering a question from Commissioner Clint Small, said the zoning category had basically elicited a response among developers along the lines of “Hmm, that looks interesting,” rather than “I’ve got to do that now.”

 

Heil said the open space would still be allowed tax exemptions – such as agriculture use exemptions – if the owners chose to pursue that route.

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