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Council lands on different sides of managed growth agreements

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Two very different requests for managed growth agreements produced two very different Austin City Council responses last week. In so doing, Council members outlined just how far they were willing to go in using the rarely invoked development tool.


Managed growth agreements are structured around large or long-term projects, or developments that present the city with “special benefits.” With them, a developer and the city can agree to preserve development regulations in place at the time of the project’s initial planning, for a predetermined amount of time. That break theoretically allows developers to grow their projects at a reasonable pace.


Managed growth agreements are controversial because developers can use them to preserve dated environmental and other development allowances.


In the first case, the developers of Pearson Place at Avery Ranch in far north Austin requested, through a managed growth agreement, a preliminary plat extension that would allow them to hang on to a plan that includes some impervious cover sites that would exceed allowable figures – though for a limited average impact. Council members signed off on it.


The second agreement would have let the builders of the Shady Hollow Garden Townhomes exceed environmental regulations laid out for the Barton Springs recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. Council members postponed this item pending further exploration of their legal rights under the managed growth agreement regulations.


However, Council Member Kathie Tovo might have summed up the general mood about the Shady Hollow project. “This is a very different case from the one we just heard. They are…very, very far from existing code regulations in a very sensitive area.”


Pearson Place developers submitted their preliminary plan in March of 2008. In a letter he penned to Planning and Development Review Department head Greg Guernsey, Pearson Representative Jeff Howard noted that the project was both a large project and a long-term project – two of the three criteria options allowed by the managed growth agreement.


Howard told Council members that he was in front of them to sort out impervious cover issues. When first permitted, Pearson Place was in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction. It was subsequently annexed, and given an interim zoning of SF-2 – a designation that allows up to 45 percent impervious cover.


Though the project boasts an average of only 32.5 percent impervious cover, some sections run as high as 57 percent. That number is not allowable under current regulations.


In addition, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole remembered that there had been some issues with heritage trees on the property. Howard said that, with the agreement, project construction begun after March 1 would be subject to Heritage Tree Ordinance protections.


Tovo asked if Pearson developers planned on cutting any eligible trees in the meantime. Howard said that, though his clients do have a tree-taking permit, they had gone to pains to proactively get it in advance of being required to do so. Howard also noted plans for mitigation and preservation that had been tacked on to the preliminary plan.


It was enough for Council Member Laura Morrison. “I think it’s very reasonable to go forward with this,” she said.


She and her colleagues approved the managed development agreement unanimously.


The Shady Hollow project was the other side of that coin. There, Madison City Homes sought an eight-year permit extension after running out of all other options to extend the life of that document past Feb. 7.


When originally filed, Shady Hollow development was in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. That means that, in addition to not being subject to the Heritage Tree Ordinance, city landscaping or zoning regulations, the project would also not have to comply with the impervious cover regulations of the Barton Springs recharge zone.


Despite the seeming ‘no’ that this might otherwise bring from Council, Council Member Bill Spelman called for a postponement. He expressed concerns over the substantial increase in impervious cover that the agreement would allow the project and other issues. “I would like to know more about what our options are with respect to our duration requirements, and I understand that we will not be able to get access to all of that information until two week from now.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell didn’t back the idea. “The application expires on the seventh,” he says. “Although we haven’t had the complete briefing on the issues that have to do with project duration, it has been discussed. And I think I have enough understanding of the issues around that to convince me that we should not cause this project to expire.”


Spelman pointed out that Council members could elect to backdate any agreement with Shady Hollow, but that wasn’t enough for Leffingwell. However, the mayor was the only Council member so inclined. Spelman and his colleagues postponed action by a 6-1 vote.


A vote on the managed growth agreement for Shady Hollow is now set for Feb. 14.

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