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Environmental Board backtracks on linking variance to donation

Thursday, July 7, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin’s Environmental Board retracted its award of a $30,000 donation to the Austin Parks Foundation at a special called meeting last week. This time, when the board granted a fill variance sought by local home builders Taylor Morrison, the move came with specific active conditions that the developers must follow instead of the charitable gift.


Assistant City Attorney Mitzi Cotton was careful with how she characterized the board’s reconsideration. “I think the board decided that (it) was not as tied to trying to deal with the violation,” she told In Fact Daily. “I think that they felt that their previous condition didn’t really address the harm that the violation was doing.”


Cotton didn’t think that the board had overstepped its legal abilities. “I don’t know that I would say that they overstepped,” she said. “They’ve worked hard on coming up on conditions for variances to try to have some consistency and I think they felt like they had stepped beyond that chart that they had imposed on themselves.”


The idea of some sort of donation from Taylor Morrison first surfaced at the board’s regularly scheduled June 15 meeting (See In Fact Daily, June 17, 2011). Board Member Jon Beall made the suggestion after hinting at conversations that he’d had with the developer. “We’ve had two conversations this afternoon,” he said at the time. “Let me just for the record say that Taylor Morrison Homes is willing to agree to a donation to the Austin Parks Foundation.”


Taylor Morrison representatives agreed to the fee in exchange for a fill variance that allows a wall to remain in their Senna Hills subdivision. Board Member James Schissler objected. “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 at the time.


This time around, the board offered up a list of six conditions that centered around tree planting and top soil requirements. Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell told Taylor Morrison attorney Peter Cesaro of Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody that she wanted to be fair. She told him that she wanted to “make sure that we weren’t requiring more than the $30,000 that you were willing to spend on this.”


Schissler moved to require the company to plant 21 trees. He ignored the rest of city staff’s recommendations. His motion failed to earn a second.


Beall then moved for each of staff’s six recommendations. These include a requirement that Taylor Morrison bring the total amount of trees in the affected subdivision to 87, and that the company pay to keep them watered. Beall also acted on a staff recommendation that calls for the developer to add 12 inches of irrigation-friendly top soil to a section of the area around the wall.


Schissler still had hesitations. “Last week we had our retreat and we went over … variances and the list of mitigation measures,” he said. “In the future we should try and follow it.”


He voted against Beall’s motion. With board member Mary Ann Neely absent, the final tally was 5-1.

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