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Environmental Board makes rare recommendation on zoning case

Tuesday, May 8, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

After a request from the Planning Commission, the Environmental Board took the unusual step of weighing in on a zoning request for the Estates of Travis Country last week.


The development is just next to Travis Country Estates, and located in the Barton Creek Watershed.


The lot is currently owned by AISD, but is up for sale. Independent Realty has proposed a development of the 12.45 acres that would have no more than 12 homes, with any remaining land (about seven acres) to be donated to the Travis County HOA for use as a green belt. All development on the land is subject to SOS regulations.


It isn’t typical for the Environmental Board to weigh in on the zoning of a property.


“Ordinarily the environmental assessment comes when (developers) are going to file their site plan,” Chair Mary Gay Maxwell told In Fact Daily. “In a situation like this, it would be so good to have an environmental assessment at the front end, but that’s not how it’s done in the city process… There is some interest on Council to look at that – changing where the environmental assessment falls in the process.”


Opponents to this zoning change argued that in this case, the environmental assessment would come too late, and that at that point public participation would be limited.


So, with what was called a “casual” assessment, the board proceeded to weigh in, making a recommendation to the Planning Commission that the property “optimally remain open space.”


“Given that the neighborhood was built prior to when SOS impervious cover limitations took effect, purchasing the property as a community can help lessen the impact their current house footprints have on the groundwater system,” said Board Member Robin Gary, who made the motion. “As the environmental board, obviously we can’t do zoning, but optimally, the best thing for the environment is that it remain as undeveloped open space.”


Gary’s motion passed 4-2, with Board Members James Schissler and Bob Anderson voting against and Board Member Mary Ann Neely absent.


Schissler pointed out that the lot is currently zoned “Public,” which does not preclude its development.


“To say that we want to keep this as open space is not really addressing the issue. The issue is whether there is any environmental reason that this should not be rezoned from P to SF-2, and I don’t think that anybody’s statements here tonight show that there was anything on the site other than what you have on every site over the recharge zone,” said Schissler.


“These would, in fact, be better than all the houses that are there today, but none of the people who live around this park want to have 12 more houses. I don’t think that’s an environmental concern. I think that’s a zoning concern,” said Schissler.


Board Member Jennifer Walker said that she was concerned the process was a “bit backwards” and pointed out that environmental features could potentially help dictate what an appropriate use of the land could be.


“Developers will have their site plan done, will have a lot of investment done in their projects, and then the environmental assessment is done. To me it seems backwards to do that,” said Walker. “It seems to me that it would make a lot of sense to make informed decisions about how land is zoned and to take into consideration environmental features on land before we decide how to zone it.”


Jim Bennet, who spoke in favor of the zoning on behalf of his client, also spoke in favor of the current city process, saying, “the hierarchy that exists in the code is currently is the most reasonable way to approach development in this city.”


“We don’t think that the Environmental Board should be used as a tool in trying to get a bid thrown out that was accepted by AISD so that a public entity or public people can come before and say ‘we want to try to raise money to and match that bid or equal that bid or have you sell it to us for a lower price. And I think that’s what’s being pitched to you here tonight, either openly or covertly,” said Bennet.


Opponents of the rezoning did express a desire to purchase the land and preserve it as open space. Neighbors have amassed a valid petition against the rezoning that currently stands at 86 percent.

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