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Panel calls for overlay district to control group residences in UT area

Friday, October 14, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Against staff recommendation, the Planning Commission has opted to recommend creation of the Central Austin-University Area Zoning Overlay District. The vote was 7-0-1, with Commissioner Dave Anderson abstaining and Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez absent.


The purpose of the zoning overlay district would be to make group residential a conditional land use, and require owners of MF-4 zoned properties to go through a public process to obtain what is normally an appropriate use.


The Planning Commission directed staff to initiate the amendment in April 2010, after concerns were raised during Codes and Ordinances citizens’ communication.


Critics of the change argue that the issue was addressed ad nauseum during the lengthy process that created the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan. Those who are pushing for the zoning overlay district insist that the allowance of group residential housing in their neighborhoods is an oversight that needs to be corrected.


“There were no missteps, there were no mistakes that were done in that process,” said Robert Heil of the Planning and Development Review Department. “It was in no way an error, it was in no way an oversight of Council, the neighborhood or staff. Those were very deliberate decisions.”


The Central Austin Neighborhood Plan identifies four MF-4 zoned properties, two of which allow group residential, and two of which do not. In the West University Area, 34 of the 59 MF-4 zoned properties allow group residential use.


“There were 63 tracts that were MF-4 zoned, 24 of them received a CO to prohibit group residential. So I really do have to take exception that 62 percent of those tracts ‘fell out’ or fell through the cracks, or were left off by accident,” said Heil.


Residents in the Hancock, Heritage Hills and Shoal Creek and West University neighborhoods argue that the prohibition was a trade off for permitting extremely high density in the University Neighborhood Overlay.


Mary Ingle, a member of CAMPAC, told the commission that random tracts were left out of the group residential prohibition. “I think it was a mistake,” said Ingle, who stated that the intent of the plan was to prohibit new group residential development in single-family neighborhoods.


“In the final draft of the plan, things changed and there were random tracts left out of the prohibition. It was clearly the intent to have this use prohibited in our neighborhoods for the tradeoff for UNO,” said Ingle.


While a zoning overlay would not prohibit group residential use, it would shift the burden away from those who would object to the use, and onto property owners who would be required to get approval for the change.


“The base assumption that I’m operating from is that within MF-4, group residential is an appropriate use,” said Heil. “So if there is some reason why an MF-4 zoned property is inappropriate for group residential, I do feel it is incumbent on the people who are placing the additional restriction to make that case.”


Alan Robinson, the General Administrator of College Houses was involved in the CAMPAC process, and objected to the change.


“A deal is a deal,” said Robinson. “If I thought, as a co-op, that every property would have been listed as prohibited, then, as a stakeholder, I would have raised my hand and said ‘wait, we need to talk more’.”


Robinson explained that his understanding was that some group residential was prohibited and some was allowed, how it stands now, and terms that he could accept.


“As a stakeholder, the deal was never prohibiting group residential everywhere except for West Campus. That was not on the table,” said Robinson.


City Council will soon get the chance to weigh in on the argument, after all this time.


“This has been an issue since it passed. We’re finally here six or seven years later trying to fix it,” said John Foxworth, vice president of the Shoal Crest Neighborhood Association. “We want this on a case-by-case basis to come before us, we want notification, so we can present whether it is a good idea to allow group residential in any circumstance. We’re not saying no. We’re saying just let us talk about it.”

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