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Redrawing of Trail West development raises neighbors’ suspicions

Thursday, June 14, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

The redrawing of boundaries for a proposed single-family development in the Oak Hill area has only increased skepticism between the developer and a local homeowners’ association.

The property, a 12.5-acre stretch of unspoiled green space in the city’s southwest corner that is owned by Austin Independent School District, has become something of a lightning rod for neighbors concerned about possible damage to the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

AISD recently put the site at 4806 ½ Trail West Dr. up for sale after determining it was not suitable for a public school. Independent Realty, which has a contract to purchase the property, put in the application (with the consent of AISD) to change the site’s zoning from Public to Single Family Residence. It also requested a change in the Future Land Use Map from Civic to Single Family. Independent hopes to build a small single-family development with approximately 10 homes.

At last Thursday’s City Council meeting, the Travis Country Home Owner’s Association, which, in addition to fighting against the development also made a losing bid to buy the property when it went up for sale, requested a postponement on a vote until early August. Speaking for the homeowners’ association, Laura Dunn told Council she and her neighbors were seeking the postponement because the applicant had dramatically altered its plans at the last minute.

“If there is an alternative to development of equal or higher value for AISD that can fulfill the Comprehensive Plan directive to move density off the recharge zone and serve as yet another example of how Austin distinguishes itself as a place where neighborhoods work together with governmental bodies to shape a landscape that reflects innovation of forward thinking, then there should be a chance to fully explore that,” Dunn said.

Dunn pointed out that the homeowners’ association had only the day before been informed that the applicant had altered the boundaries of the zoning request, “so the neighborhood needs time to evaluate and understand what this means,” she said. “This is public land owned by a public entity, AISD, and the bidder now appears to be exploiting a public process in a way to avoid input from citizens living adjacent to the property.”

As it turns out, what Dunn labeled “exploiting a public process” to avoid citizen input may have actually been the result of the applicant responding to public input. After Independent Realty presented their original plans for the site, under which they would have developed nearly all of the 12.5–acre plot, the Travis Country Home Owners Association gathered a valid petition against that proposal with the signatures of 86 percent of neighboring homeowners. In response to the petition, Independent – either in an attempt to address the neighbors’ environmental concerns or 4ify their petition, depending on whom you ask – redrew the boundaries of its proposed development twice, each time pushing development closer into the center of the site, thereby both creating a larger buffer of trees and undeveloped land between the current homes and the future ones and reducing the number of neighbors living within 200 feet of the property – which is the requirement for adding one’s name to a valid petition.

In other words, the developer was getting what it wanted (the elimination of a valid petition) by either intentionally or unintentionally giving the neighborhood association what it wanted (more green space). Under the terms of the current proposal, only 4.5 of the site’s 12.5 acres would be developed. The remaining eight acres would remain zoned Public. It would be a win-win situation if everyone involved weren’t so suspicious of everyone else involved.

The homeowners’ association sought a postponement until Aug. 2, but Nicholas Dean, a representative from Independent Realty, called a seven-week delay “exorbitant” and asked that Council grant a postponement until June 28 instead.

“The neighborhood hasn’t collected anything of value in the last two years so we don’t believe they’ll come up with anything in the next two or three weeks,” Dean said. “They have not even attempted to work with us.”

But Dunn said her group needs more time to fully understand the implications of the new proposed site plan.

“There’s been an ongoing effort in the neighborhood to meet AISD’s needs and yet preserve the integrity of the neighborhood and preserve the land,” Dunn said. “Now that the boundaries have completely changed, there are a lot of questions with that. We want to fully investigate what this means for the neighborhood and be in discussion with AISD to let them know there are alternatives that could be very viable and could be a win-win, rather than this … a process that really voids any citizen input.”

Council decided to split the difference, voting 7-0 to take up the issue at their June 28 meeting, the final meeting before its summer break, and debate then whether to postpone a vote until August.

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