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ZAP reluctantly approves subdivision on environmentally rich land

Thursday, October 7, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Parcels of land, even those that have multiple environmental features, still get developed in Austin, as the Zoning and Platting Commission proved Tuesday night.

 

The Springs of Walnut Creek is a 108-home subdivision planned for 63 acres off Interstate 35 near Yager Lane in far north Austin. The property was initially platted in 1985. More than two decades later, developer Richard Kunz (Yager Development) is now closing in on construction, and city staff has found 27 critical environmental features on the property, including 11 rim rock formations, nine wetlands, four seeps, and three springs, according to information provided by one neighbor and staff.

 

“This sounds like something you ought to charge admission to,” exclaimed Commissioner Patricia Seeger during the discussion, drawing applause from neighbors. Staff acknowledged that the city had attempted either to purchase or set aside the property, given the prevalence of environmental features.

 

Keith Mars, an environmental reviewer with the city, said it was “an amazing piece of property.” Mars said the city had attempted to set aside the property as conservation easement, among other things, but an agreement couldn’t be reached with the applicant.

 

“We are regulators, and we are scientists to do this job,” Mars said of his ambivalence on the property. “Beyond that, to advocate a position … we are bound by code. If it meets the requirements, then our personal feelings are aside. We just try to do a complete and thorough job.”

 

ZAP, for its part, was requested to approve the final subdivision with two variances: the first varying the streets in the proposed subdivision aligning with contiguous subdivisions, the second allowing the construction of a wastewater line in a critical water quality zone.

 

Staff recommended approval of both variances. The Environmental Board also supported the latter recommendation on a vote of 7-0.

 

During testimony, Chair Betty Baker did read, somewhat reluctantly, from city documentation reiterating that all critical environmental features on the property are protected by buffers. As a child, Baker told colleagues, she fished in Walnut Creek not far from the location of the proposed subdivision.

 

“It had some of the best black bass in that creek, and I’m not sure after all the development we’ve done, northward, that a self-respecting turtle would live there where I fished,” Baker said at the time of the final vote. “I wish the land was not going to be developed, but that’s not an issue for us to decide.”

 

 

As the chair of ZAP, Baker had to acknowledge the property owner’s right to develop the land, since just over 19 acres was dedicated to the city as park land. That was well above what was required under city code, Don Perryman of the Planning and Development Review Department acknowledged when questioned by commissioners.

 

“I don’t know if that satisfies you, but there have been some issues raised and some resolutions offered to the critical environmental features,” Baker said.

 

Raul Treviño did tug at the heartstrings of the commissioners, however, by handing out fossils from the creek and videotaping the streambed and waterfalls. Treviño insisted 19 acres is not enough. Questioned what would be enough acreage, Treviño said he did not know. The 19-acre figure, he said, was new to him.

 

“Think about this in North Austin and compare it to something we’re more aware of, in Central or South Austin,” Treviño told commissioners, clearly referring to environmental protection priorities. “I think that would change a lot of opinions.”

 

The amount of parkland, Perryman said, was a condition of zoning. Perryman said they had “well exceeded” what they would normally dedicate in land.

 

The city had worked with the developer for 18 months. That lengthened timeline included doubling the number of critical environmental features (CEFs) on the property, said hydrogeologist Sylvia Pope. Most CEFs on the property had 150-foot buffers and, in some cases, 50 feet, dependant on the placement of water quality features. Pope said the placement of the wastewater line is going to cause a disturbance but would be less destructive than other methods to attach the line. Spring discharge, Pope said, might be impacted by construction but is contingent on rainfall and should come back after construction is completed.

 

Baker told the commissioners the subdivision meets subdivision requirements and that the variance requests are reasonable. She said she had looked for reasons to abstain from the vote and had found none. The motion passed unanimously.

 

After the vote, Commissioner Donna Tiemann made a point of thanking neighborhood leaders for their efforts and video and for expressing a hope that the city’s explanation had provided some rationale for the commission’s action.

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