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Neighborhood opposes upzoning of Water Utility tract

Thursday, February 16, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The City Council last week failed to resolve a conflict between getting a higher price for property owned by Austin Water Utility and a desire by a nearby group of home owners to turn the land into a park. The property, located at 3010 Honey Tree Lane, is the site of a decommissioned pump station which was not developed by the utility.


It is currently zoned as “Public,” with the utility seeking a change to single-family-2 in order to sell the property. The Zoning and Platting Commission recommended that the property be rezoned to SF-1, which is a less-intense use.


With Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo in opposition, Council approved rezoning of its own property only on first reading. Because there is a valid petition against the zoning change, at least one of the opponents will have to change her vote in order to finally approve any change.


The water utility is seeking the zoning change in the hope that they can get a better return on the property, which it is planning to sell. As currently zoned, appraisers value the lot at $30,000 to $60,000. The Water Utility estimates that the zoning change would increase that to about $200,000.


The neighborhood is not excited about the change. The lot sits behind three homes, and would be accessible only as a flag lot.  Those neighbors have a valid petition against the rezoning, which is at 79 percent.  While the neighborhood has expressed interest in purchasing the property and leaving it as open space, it will be sold in a public bidding process that cannot favor individual buyers.


“The primary thing that I want to bring across is that we are not opposed to selling the property,” said neighbor Stanley Young. “Several of us have actually approached the city to buy it over the past few years. What we are opposed to is the speculative upzoning of it, to be able to sell it.”


Morrison also expressed concern about the upzoning.


“We could do zoning really fast around here if we were just here to make sure that everybody got as much money as they could for their property,” said Morrison. “We need to ensure that we are responsible with taxpayer’s money, but land use decisions are about more than ‘how do I make as much money as I possibly can?’ They’re really about compatibility, and is this the right thing to do. I think we need to keep that in mind now that we’re the applicant. We the city need to not have a conflict-of-interest here and make sure that we are making an appropriate land use decision”


“Obviously, everyone would rather have a vacant lot next to them,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “I totally understand wanting to have that open space, and I think the opportunity will be there to still acquire that open space, but I think the city is under an obligation to try their best to obtain fair-market value based on appropriate, compatible uses.”


Leffingwell noted that the neighborhood would still have the opportunity to purchase the property, just at a fair-market price.


The council majority is hoping that between now and the next vote, staff will be able to work out an agreement with the neighborhood.


Council Member Chris Riley supported the rezoning, pointing out to neighbors that even with Public zoning, the lot could be developed for civic use, which is a designation that includes both churches and daycare centers. Ideas of building a city park on the lot were rejected by the Parks Department, which had no interest in maintaining such a small, and somewhat strangely placed, park.


“What we have here is a situation where P zoning could well lead to something not desired on the part of the neighborhood, and could lead to uses that are really not as compatible with the neighborhood as single-family uses could be,” said Riley.


“It seems to me that if the neighborhood tried to envision potential uses that could be compatible with the existing uses that there could be conversations about setbacks and height limits and so on,” said Riley. “If you could envision some house there that would not be such a bad thing, then it seems like there’s room for continued conversation.”

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