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Zoning Commission votes to keep Harris Branch sites for schools

Monday, June 11, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Zoning and Platting Commission voted against a request by the developers of Harris Branch to remove two sites that have been designated for schools since the late 1980s in large northeast Austin residential development.


In a 4-3 vote on Tuesday, the commission sided with staff against the developer’s proposal to amend its planned unit development (PUD) agreement with the city to set aside two tracts of land for use as schools in the future.


The 2,113-acre Harris Branch PUD, located at U.S. Highway 290 and Parmer Lane, is in the Manor Independent School District. The proposal offered by the property owner Galesi-Austin would have been the 17th amendment to its 1989 agreement with the city to form the PUD, which is a zoning designation for a large-scale, cohesive development.


Commissioners Sandra Baldridge, Jason Meeker, Gabriel Rojas and Patricia Seeger sided with staff and voted to deny the recommendation. Losing the vote: Chair Betty Baker and Commissioners Cynthia Banks and Gregory Bourgeois.


In a letter dated August 30, 2011, Manor Independent School District Deputy Superintendent Russell Wallace wrote that the school district was unwilling to pay the $35,000 per acre price set by Galesi-Austin for the two tracts, which combined are about 40 acres.


“Manor ISD would be very interested in both sites in the Harris Branch development. However, we would not be interested in paying $35,000 per acre for either site.” The letter goes on to explain that the school district has accepted donations of land from other developments, and would be more than happy to discuss a similar arrangement with Harris Branch.


Galesi-Austin declined to donate the land to the school district.


John McCullough, senior vice president of Galesi-Austin wrote, “Such designation was never intended for such land to be donated, nor was any obligation created for us to do so… As you reflect that the MISD has no intention to pursue a purchase of our properties, we consider our offer 4 and void and we will proceed to position our properties in the marketplace for sale to others.”


In an April 2012 letter to the city, Galesi-Austin attorney John Joseph of Coats Rose Yale Ryman & Lee, explained that the original agreement to set aside the school sites was part of a municipal utility district (MUD) agreement that is no longer binding, due to a lack of need by Manor ISD. Joseph also stated that the original 1986 donation of the tracts to the school district – at a time the development was a MUD — was an exaction, which has subsequently been determined to be an unconstitutional taking, as the donation exceeds the development’s proportional impact.


Additionally, developers declined to comply with Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey’s request that revised plans indicate extensions of North Gate Drive and Ridge Gate Drive to illustrate connectivity with the adjacent North Gate Plan.


In a letter to the city, Joseph claimed the director does not have a right to ask for plans to show extensions of the roads, as that part of the code refers to PUD applications, not PUD amendments. He went on to say that the inclusion of roads in the plan violates laws that prohibit the city from adopting new requirements that make the project “more onerous or burdensome.”


When asked why developers hesitated to show connectivity, Joseph told the commission that the road would bisect the land to the west, making the land less valuable for development.


Richard Suttle of Ambrust and Brown represented landowners to the north and east of the PUD. He opposed the PUD amendment, but stated that they would support the changes if connectivity was shown.     


“A collector going through is not unusual on that type of property,” said Suttle. “If you’re going to consider actually giving them back school sites or other stuff and moving land uses around, then the quid pro quo or the exchange should be to show connectivity. So that in this area of town, we don’t end up like we do in other areas of town now, where we wish we had planned for roads that go through where people could get to the major roads and get out.”


Joseph said, “It seems like it’s their way or nothing at all. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t provide the connectivity. I’m saying that this isn’t the right place for it. And my PUD land use plan is being held hostage. That’s all it is. I believe in connectivity. As a matter of fact, we have provided the connectivity for the area. We built Harris Branch Parkway.” He also added that they also built extensions of both Parmer and Howard lanes.


Commissioner Gregory Bourgeois explained that he would not vote in favor of staff’s recommendation.


“This is a tough case. I’m an advocate of connectivity, and have been since I started. The offer to make the one connection is a good start. But I’m not sure if the topography will ultimately allow the two connections,” said Bourgeois, who agreed that it might be an issue best resolved in planning.

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