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Council rejects rezoning of school district property

Thursday, July 12, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

In a hotly contested case at its final meeting before the summer break, the City Council rejected a proposal for rezoning vacant land used as neighborhood green space in the Estates at Travis Country to make way for a single-family development.

 

Council Member Bill Spelman joked and called it “the incredible shrinking subdivision,” but the proposal for the Austin Independent School District’s surplus property failed to pass Council muster.

 

Nicholas Dean of Independent Realty, who planned to buy the property, appeared to meet every legal requirement to earn a zoning change on the property, from P, or public, to SF-2, single-family. Council, however, was swayed by arguments from a neighborhood association that it could raise the money for the purchase price and meet AISD’s price.

 

The zoning vote was one of the final actions on a night that included the rejection of a quasi-temporary terminal at Austin Bergstrom International Airport and the approval of the contract to build the boardwalk on Lady Bird Lake.

 

The proposal for the Estates at Travis Country was worked and reworked to try to please neighbors, carving a 12-acre one-time school tract down to 4 acres with 12 single-family homes on lots of a size similar to the surrounding neighborhood.

 

Dean argued the proposal was compatible and appropriate with the existing neighborhood plan, meeting many of the goals for the Oak Hill area in southwest Austin. On the other hand, Anthony Peterman, president of the Travis Country Community Service Association, said the zoning case for the surplus property was unique.

 

“This is really different,” Peterman said. “I think it’s different from a straight zoning question because this has been used as a civic use, public zoning, for 40 years in the middle of our community. That use makes this a different issue.”

 

A 40-year-old restrictive covenant on the property limited development to either public school, which would include the school site, or single-family development.

 

A number of signs of distress, however, appeared in the zoning case, not the least of which was the consideration and reconsideration of a petition from the opposition. From the viewpoint of neighbors, Independent Realty kept moving the goal line to avoid a valid petition. From the view of agent Jim Bennett, the interpretation of the valid homeowners’ petition had changed, as well as the plans.

 

The neighborhood association appeared to be divided between those who pledged that homeowners would find the funds to purchase the property in partnership with the Native Prairie Association of Texas, and a handful of homeowners who formed an alternate group to attempt to hammer out some kind of compromise with Independent Realty.

 

Bob Sendera said the alternate group, dubbed the Homeowners for Responsible Development, sought a win-win solution for both preservation and development. The Travis Country board, however, opposed any development of the lot, known as Lot 60.

 

“The Travis Country board of directors opposed this zoning and in late 2010 said that they would never accept any development of Lot 60 under any circumstance, in any manner, at any time at any cost,” Sendera told Council. “In other words, a handful of homeowners around the perimeter of Lot 60 decided they would not tolerate any development before they even considered the possibility that there might be an acceptable alternative.”

 

Kent Lattig, another member of the group and a long-time property owner in the area, called the dispute contentious and embarrassing. He noted that Travis Country was surrounded by existing open space. He calculated the surplus property represented only 5 percent of the open space in the area.

 

The surplus property was appraised at $600,000. Austin ISD wanted to see a $750,000 minimum bid. Dean offered $980,000. During the bid process, the neighborhood association offered $250,000 to keep the land open space, with a promise of additional funds if given the chance for more time for additional fundraising.

 

The neighborhood supported a transfer of development rights of the property as a way to bring down costs. City of Austin Planning and Development Review Department Director Greg Guernsey, however, confirmed such transfers did not apply to land in the Barton Creek zone.


Even though the clock was pushing 2 a.m., neighbors presented a vigorous line of protests against the rezoning of the property: They called the SF-2 proposal “spot rezoning.” They noted detention ponds could not be placed in the green space around the houses, a decision reserved for the site plan phase. They also noted an opposition to potential flag lots and promised to make the school district whole if they had the opportunity to raise money.

 

Bennett, who rarely minces words, said most of the protests failed to sound genuine and some of the claims, like the land was undevelopable, were outright false. The project, as proposed, met the potential option for the property.

 

Nevertheless, Council, disregarded recommendations for approval from city staff and the Planning Commission and denied the request.

 

Council members, however, already had made up their minds. Along with Spelman’s quip about the “incredible shrinking subdivision,” Council Member Laura Morrison called the property “a sensitive area” and noted that surrounding property, platted before the SOS ordinance, already was overdeveloped with more than three houses per acre.

 

Council Member Chris Riley attempted to prompt neighbors about the cost of the land without the transfer of development rights. They remained firm. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who served on the Environmental Board, noted the developer had already agreed to dedicate two-thirds of the property as open space. And he noted the general lack of logic in the neighborhood’s proposal.

 

“I’d like to have open space next to me, too,” Leffingwell said. “But if I did, I’d expect to pay for it.”

 

Leffingwell said it made no sense, with Austin ISD in such dire straits, to deny them a fair sale on the value of the surplus land. Riley said he reluctantly agreed with the mayor’s points about the property, even though he recognized that the neighbors might have some anxiety about change.

 

“At the same time, we have a responsibility to zone it fairly in keeping with the surrounding land uses,” Riley said. “I just don’t see a basis for denying that zoning in this case.”

 

The final vote to deny the zoning change was 5-2, with Leffingwell and Riley in opposition.

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