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Planning Commission bucks the tide and votes to rezone green space

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite a valid petition in play and a thumbs down from the Environmental Board, the Planning Commission opted last week to recommend a zoning change in the Barton Creek Watershed from Public to SF-2, getting the developer closer to building a residential development in far southwest Austin.


The commission voted 5-3-1 to approve the zoning change, with Commissioners Jean Stevens, Donna Tiemann, and Danette Chimenti voting in opposition and Commissioner Saundra Kirk abstaining from the vote, saying that she had “no opinion.”


In approving the rezoning of the land — located adjacent to Travis Country Estates subdivision — the commission attached several conditions proposed by the developers, Independent Realty. In February, the developers offered a conditional overlay that would limit development to no more than 12 residential homes, a minimum lot size of 8,000 square feet, as well as restricting development to six acres, leaving about seven acres for community use.


Last month, the Planning Commission took the unusual step of soliciting an opinion from the Environmental Board on the rezoning. The board, which typically does not hear zoning cases, voted 4-2 to keep the lot green space, although they did so without an official environmental assessment, which is done later in the development phase.


“For me, it is about certainty,” said Commissioner Dave Anderson. “I’m looking at guaranteed 15 percent impervious cover versus the potential for more impervious cover, and guaranteed water controls versus the potential for no water-quality controls if there is development in the future.”


Though the lot is currently zoned “Public,” this does not prohibit development. Originally, the Austin Independent School District planned to build a school on the land, but even with those plans scrapped, Public zoning would allow development such as a daycare or church.


Independent Realty won the bidding process initiated by AISD, and currently has a contract with the district. Independent Realty representative Nicholas Dean noted that even if neighbors prevented the zoning change, they still had a dilemma, in that AISD had to go through a competitive bidding process to sell the land.


“They can’t just go back and give it to the neighborhood for a reduced price. They have a fiduciary responsibility to all the taxpayers to get the higher and best price,” Dean said.


Chimenti, who voted against the rezoning, thought the neighborhood should have that chance.


“If these folks are willing to put their money together and raise a bunch of money, and keep trying to raise a bunch of money until they can present an alternative to AISD, I think they deserve the right to do that,” Chimenti said.


“I can’t get beyond the fact that you have a homeowners’ association, a neighborhood plan contact team, a neighborhood association, the Environmental Board and a valid petition that is like 80 percent or something like that. You’ve got all those folks that don’t want to see this property developed,” Chimenti said.


About 86 percent of the neighbors have signed a valid petition against the rezoning. Opponents of the development have their own suggestions for the land, including: a conservation easement that could be funded in part by Travis County, a park financed by neighbors and a purchase by a local nonprofit group. Aaron Day, a neighbor who lives in Travis Country, said that the open space was the reason he had purchased his home.


They argued that the environmentally sensitive nature of the land made it a poor candidate for development.


“Over the last 25 years, everyone’s been going through this land and using it as a park. Which is kind of nice,” said Commissioner Richard Hatfield, who voted in favor of the rezoning. “Unfortunately, someone owned the land.”

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