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Formula 1 wins approval for variances

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Last night, at the Zoning and Platting Commission meeting, attorney Richard Suttle had no difficulty winning approval for cut-and-fill variances on the Formula 1 racetrack site, but it’s clear the racetrack has both friends and foes.


On Thursday, the City Council is expected to approve service extension requests for water and wastewater lines to the southeast Travis County property.


The crowd in Council Chambers Tuesday night was an interesting mix. In one section sat a small gaggle of uber-serious environmentalists, opposed to the racetrack on philosophical grounds and vocal about its placement in the flood plain. And in the back sat a handful of mostly middle-aged men, one dressed in full Formula 1 regalia, who all appeared grinning and giddy at the possibility of car racing in Austin.


And not to trade on any stereotypes, but one was named Wyman “Wild Bubba” Gilliam, who owns a wild game grill in Elroy that serves bear meat.


“I’ve heard every conceivable reason to oppose this, from the wildlife to the environment to the pollution to the noise,” Chair Betty Baker noted as she opened the hearing on the site grading and drainage variances. “I can certainly appreciate it, and I understand it, but the only things on our agenda tonight deal with this variance, and that’s all that we will discuss.”


The cut-and-fill variances were intended to address two aspects of the track: the detention pond and the leveling of the race course, which is a flat road route rather than the circular track with embankments associated with NASCAR. Staff and the Environmental Board imposed conditions, which ZAP appeared willing to accept with only a handful of questions.


Formula 1 enthusiasts, who followed Suttle’s rather dry explanation of the 3.25 mile-long track, were happy to explain the joy of racing to the commissioners, promising the developer’s environmentally friendly approach to the track would be an asset to Austin and put the city on an international stage. Speaker Howard Kells declared the Formula 1 circuit event a sporting event second only to the Olympics and the World Cup in terms of television exposure.


Environmentalists, on the other hand, warned that the track would be far from an asset. In fact, Chris Lehman of the Austin Sierra Club guaranteed the project “can’t help to be bad for the county and for us.”


Todd Wroblewski, who took the lead in opposing the track at last night’s hearing, presented a revised flood plain map, noting the project had yet to get clearance from FEMA to build within the 100-year flood plain on the property. And it appeared the staff was unclear on which flood plain map was being used.


That argument did not gather much steam because Suttle, in his rebuttal, explained that the vast majority of the track’s site plan had been moved out of the flood plain. Nor did it appear to be ZAP’s purview to consider the flood plain issue. That belongs to Travis County, since the site is in the extra-territorial jurisdiction, planner Brad Jackson explained to the commission.


The local homeowners group, which had opposed a 1,800-home subdivision on the same site, was agnostic about the racetrack. Cathy Olive of the Elroy Preservation Association reminded ZAP that local homeowners had fought the proposed Wandering Creek subdivision tooth-and-nail. Homeowners were less certain when it came to taking a position on the racetrack.


“When it was the 1,800 houses, we were 101 percent against the houses,” Olive said. “When it comes to the racetrack, there are some who love it and some people who are moving. The vast majority have taken a wait-and-see attitude.”


The one thing the Elroy Preservation Association does resent, Olive said, is the Sierra Club implying that neighbors are any less concerned about the environmental impact of development than they are. It was for that reason that when the Sierra Club finally took an interest in the racetrack site, and asked for the homeowner association’s records on Wandering Creek, Olive said, “No.”


When it came time for the vote, Commissioner Donna Tiemann said she was swayed by the argument that the variances and the flood plain situation should be considered in tandem, and not separately.


“I know you outlined that we would only look at the cut-and-fill, but it’s hard for me to separate the land use aspect of this project, and so I’m not inclined to support a 36-foot cut-and-fill on this project,” Tiemann said.


Commissioner Patricia Seeger, who is typically Tiemann’s ally on such cases, said she saw unanswered questions and questioned the land use, but she had signed off on a similar cut-and-fill request at Birds Nest Airport. To say “yes” to Birds Nest and “no” to Formula 1 would be disingenuous, Seeger said.


The vote was 5-1, with Tiemann opposed and Cynthia Banks absent. Conditions included, among others, the re-vegetation of slopes, the addition of sediment traps along roadway embankments, the development of structurally reinforced grass parking areas, the additional of native trees, and the restoration of the riparian areas along the creek. Suttle also promised that the developer would work with city staff to analyze how this project can comply with the new Commercial Landscape Ordinance standards for parking lots and irrigation.


Suttle said the conditions would be attached as a plat note on the site plan and that specifics on some of the broader “work with staff” recommendations would be fleshed out during the second phase of the site plan.

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