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ZAP compromises on 25-year site plan for Riverbend Church

Friday, July 22, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

It was no small feat for the Zoning and Platting Commission to settle on a 25-year site plan extension for the Riverbend Church. But, after much haggling, and five motions, the extension was granted.

The church was seeking a 75-year extension for the site plan that was initially granted in 1994. Staff recommended a 10-year extension, which is a time frame much more typical for the situation.

“Seventy-five years sort of raises my blood pressure,” said Chair Betty Baker. “However, zoning lasts longer than most marriages, site plans, probably, too.” Baker cited the evolution of some of Austin’s other churches, which have had lengthy acrimonious battles with neighborhoods over their development, which has been less transparent and straightforward.

“I like the predictability,” said Baker.

City Hall was packed with 112 supporters for the site extension, and a handful who showed up in opposition.

Supporters of the church heralded the unique role that it has played Austin. Among other things, Riverbend hosted both Lady Bird Johnson’s memorial service and the Austin Symphony while the Long Center was under construction.

“We have filed for a 75-year site plan extension, which, on the surface of it, might sound bold,” said Pastor Norm Schoenfeld, who explained that it would probably take that long to raise the $75 million in additional funds to complete the site plan.

“A 75-year site plan provides, us, the city, and our neighbors with an assurance of what our plans are over time, avoiding the conflict so many church sites in Austin have experienced over the years as they tried to develop property without a well thought out long term master plan,” said Schoenfeld.

Hill Country Conservancy Executive Director George Cofer called the church an “extraordinarily good neighbor to a 32-acre preserve that Hill Country Conservancy owns immediately to the north of the church property.” Cofer added that it was important to the conservancy to be able to have the certainty that such a long-term plan would afford them in order to develop their own land strategies.

The extension had its detractors as well. Members of the Bunny Run Neighborhood Association objected to the lengthy extension on the grounds that it was impossible to predict what would the area would be like so far into the future, and that it set a dangerous precedent.

After hearing the testimony, Commissioner Gregory Bourgeois was the first to make a motion, hoping to extend the plan for the full 75-years requested.

“When I look at the site plan, and what remains, the portion of the development that relates to the site plan has been constructed… The portion that has not been constructed are the buildings,” said Bourgeois. “And the building permits will be reviewed based on current code.”

“If this was a green field site, and the church was coming in and asking for a site plan for 75 years to build a vision out, from scratch, that would be a totally different case that I couldn’t support, so this isn’t a precedent,” said Bourgeois.

Commissioner Sandra Baldridge amended the motion for 40 years. The vote was split 3-3, with Commissioners Cynthia Banks, Gabriel Rojas, and Tiemann voting against.

The next motion was put forward by Rojas who stated that he was “concerned with fair and consistent application of city rules and regulation.” He suggested that the plan be extended for 20 years. The vote was again 3-3, this time Baker, Baldridge and Bourgeois voted against.

Next up was Tiemann, who moved to approve the staff recommendation of 10 years, reasoning that it could always be extended, but would give opportunity for public input. The motion failed, 2-4 with only Rojas joining her vote.

Again there was a motion to extend for 20 years. The vote was divided 3-3, split identically to the first time it was suggested.

Finally, Baldridge hit upon the magic number of 25, and the motion passed 5-1, with Commissioner Donna Tiemann voting against, and Commissioner Patricia Seeger absent.

The crowd, which had begun to whisper guesses about the final number among themselves, burst into applause, apparently satisfied that was as good a deal as they could get.

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