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Imagine Austin pushes Council deep into the night

Friday, June 15, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Final edition: Council unanimously voted to adopt the Imagine Austin Plan shortly after 1am this morning. The Council rejected staff’s suggestion that they retain SH45SW as a dotted line to indicate that it may be built, signaling Austin’s continued opposition to construction of the roadway over the environmentally sensitive land in southwestern Travis and northern Hays County.  

As the clock struck midnight this morning and the City Council entered its fifth hour of public comment, the fate of the Imagine Austin Plan was still very much up in the air. Debate over the 250-page plan focused primarily on a few particular points, much as it has since consultants were first hired back in 2009: the sanctity of existing neighborhood plans in relation to the comprehensive plan, the inclusion or exclusion of SH-45SW, density in the city’s core, and the protection of water supplies and environmentally sensitive areas, especially the Barton Springs section of the Edwards Aquifer.

Greg Guernsey of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department introduced the final version of the plan as a celebration of the efforts of city staff, volunteers, and Council. The city has spent two years, countless hours, more than $3 million — $1.7 million developing the plan and $1.4 million in staff time. In the end, more than 18,000 responses came in from citizens concerning how they see the city developing over the next 30 years.

According to staff, by the year 2039, Austinites want a city that is livable, natural and sustainable, mobile and interconnected, prosperous, that values and respects its people, and is creative and educated. That much people could agree on. The specifics of how to get there, however, were still proving to be contentious as last night wore on.

Many Austinites have rallied against the plan fearing that it will supplant existing neighborhood plans, despite staff assurances that the comprehensive plan and the neighborhood plans are intended to be complementary. Last night was no exception.

 

Steve Aleman from the Austin Neighborhoods Council expressed his group’s disappointment over the role of neighborhood plans in the Comprehensive Plan. “There’s nothing in here, mayor, to recognize your public statements nor the statements of most of the members of the Council that Imagine Austin will not trump neighborhood plans,” Aleman told Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “This document is not acceptable without that language.”

But Leffingwell pointed out that the neighborhood plans are city law and therefore can’t be overruled by the Imagine Austin plan. “They are laws and can only be changed by the normal process by which they’re changed today,” Leffingwell said, before turning to Guernsey for back up.

Guernsey obliged. “Imagine Austin is respectful of neighborhood plans on a parcel-by-parcel basis and would require any changes to that to come back through the same review planning process they do now,” he said.  

“So plain and simple,” Leffingwell said. “Neighborhood plans that are in place now, the zoning and the FLUMs (Future Land Use Maps), are unchanged by the Imagine Austin Plan.”

That answer didn’t seem to satisfy too many speakers, many of whom pleaded for the sanctity of neighborhood plans. One speaker called the plan a developers’ land-grab disguised as a plan for increased urban density.

 

SH-45, meanwhile, has bounced in and out of the plan, helping to reignite arguments about the roadway, whose path runs over some of the most environmentally sensitive land in the city and to the south.

 

Recently, Hays County Commissioners voted to urge Austin to include the road in the plan, in the hopes that it would encourage its construction.

 

Both the task force and the Planning Commission voted to keep SH-45 out of the plan, but Guernsey advocated for it to remain as a dashed line in recognition of the ongoing discussion about the road.

 

Last night, the highway was a flashpoint for debate over the city’s environmental and transportation priorities. “This roadway will speak volumes about Austin that is really dedicated to sustainability and maintaining clean water by not building it,” said Save Our Springs Alliance Director Bill Bunch. 

If the plan passes, staff said they are ready to move forward with implementation and monitoring. They hope to have that program developed this summer and have an outline for the annual report by fall. In addition, staff will embark on an overhaul of the Land Development Code to make it clearer and easier to use. Guernsey estimates that project will take about four years.

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