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$30,000 donation gets Environmental Board variance for Taylor Morrison

Friday, June 17, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A misunderstanding about the City of Austin’s permitting process will cost local home builders Taylor Morrison $30,000. The fee – which will come in the form of a donation to the Austin Parks Foundation – is part of a variance settlement delineated by the city’s Environmental Board that includes a waiver that will allow an already constructed wall to remain in place.


The board approved the variance by a 4-1 vote. Board Member James Schissler was the lone dissenter. From the dais, he expressed some concern about the settlement. “I think that when members of the board have discussions with applicants before us, and it involves dollar amounts to people other than city agencies, I’m not sure that that should be a protocol that we should follow in the future,” he said.


City staff presented the board with a different solution. Jeb Brown of Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department suggested that Taylor Morrison receive the variance after the firm agreed to construct the two remaining houses in the subdivision in question to Bronze LEED standard for energy efficiency. Under that agreement, the company would also plant additional trees in the area.


Board Member Jon Beall had a different idea. “We’ve had two conversations this afternoon,” he said. “Let me just for the record say that Taylor Morrison Homes is willing to agree to a donation to the Austin Parks Foundation.”


Earlier, as Brown made the initial presentation to the board, Beall had stepped off the dais to discuss the situation with Taylor Morrison’s representative, Peter Cesaro of Graves, Dougherty, Hearon, & Moody. Though the discussion was out of reach of the microphones in Council chambers, it was evident that the subject of the $30,000 donation was broached.


Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell explained what she saw as the issue. “I think Mr. Schissler has a point in that, when you’re starting to talk about dollars, and you’re starting to get into working on some kind of agreement that the staff has to come into that,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, it just means that it has to be done in a different order.”


Schissler clarified his objection. “I can see if the city has fees and has tree mitigation fees where the city gets the money,” he said, “but what was mentioned previously was about third parties getting donations from applicants. That’s what I have a problem with.”


However, Maxwell did not find the action improper. “That’s actually happening these days,” she said. “I don’t think this is the first time that’s even been brought up.”


In the end, Beall and Maxwell worked out an arrangement that binds Taylor Morrison to a $30,000 donation to the foundation. A still-to-be-determined portion of those funds were earmarked for delivery to Tree Folks.


That fact forced Board Member Mary Ann Neely to recuse herself from the vote. Neely serves as the president of the Tree Folks’ board.

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