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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Leave it to the beavers: ZAP denies appeal of expired site plan
Friday, February 8, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
It was man versus nature at the Zoning and Platting Commission this week, where commissioners pondered extending an expired site plan for a Wells Branch property. A colony of beavers has foiled the careful plans of engineers, building a pond that has proven superior to the proposed man-made on-site pond.
“I’m surprised by this beaver dam,” said Commissioner Jason Meeker. “It’s remarkable that anything could have that much standing water in the situation that we have now.”
According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife website, “No other creature besides humans controls its environment as completely as the beaver – changing the surroundings to meet its needs. And since water rules the beaver’s life, most of its efforts are aimed at making sure it has a good supply.”
The site plan expired before getting approval, which amounts to a denial of the site plan, explained case manager Lynda Courtney. The owner, represented by consultant Sarah Crocker, appealed that denial to the Zoning and Platting Commission in 2011, hoping for a one-year extension.
Though sympathetic, the Zoning and Platting Commission ultimately rejected the site plan appeal in a vote of 4-1, with Commissioner Cynthia Banks dissenting. Commissioners Patricia Seeger and Sean Compton were absent.
The proposed project is a 24,000 square foot commercial project, 4,800 square feet of office and 19,200 square feet of warehouse on 4.63 acres located at 1205 West Wells Branch Parkway.
Crocker told the commission that the initial approval had been a “long and torturous process.” She acknowledged that there was trouble with the on-site detention pond, whose functionality has been compromised by a massive beaver dam located on a different property, downstream of her client’s lot.
In the meantime, explained Crocker, the city kept asking for assurances from the engineer of record, Christopher McComb, that the pond on the property worked properly.
“Mr. McComb felt then, and feels now, that it’s impossible for him to submit an engineered response to a situation that is created, basically, by two downstream obstructions,” said Crocker.
Several people showed up to oppose the site plan extension. Glen Coleman asked the commission to “put the site plan out of its misery.”
“Conditions on the ground have changed irrevocably from what they were when this process began,” said Coleman, who served as an aide to former Council Member Randi Shade.
Coleman showed pictures of the beaver dam, which he estimated to be about ten years old, and about twice the size of City Council chambers. He urged the commission not to create a situation where additional water from increased impervious cover would be on the site.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to find an engineer that’s going to certify the beaver dam and the engineering assumptions behind it,” said Coleman.
“While I agree that we aren’t ever going to resolve having an engineer-certified beaver dam, we aren’t asking Mr. McComb to do that,” said city engineer Andrew Linseisen. “I totally agree that is outside of something I could ask Mr. McComb with a straight face… I wouldn’t want to do that either as an engineer.
Linseisen clarified that the city was asking McComb to talk about the on-site detention, not the water quality.
In April, the property owners were cited by the environmental pond inspectors because the pond was out of compliance.
“And they were right,” said Crocker. “This pond hasn’t functioned in years.”
Crocker said that her client had fully participated in the site plan review process, with one exception, saying, “The only thing he wasn’t going to do was to provide a study on a pond and upstream drainage.”
“They want him to verify all of the drainage going into this channel. Well, this was a pond that was built for 59 upstream acres. HEB is on 20 of those acres, with no on-site water controls. Everything flows to here unchecked,” said Crocker.
Crocker pointed out that this was the case for many of the neighboring properties, all of which have been developed using the pond, and none of which have been asked to verify the pond’s functionality in the same way. Crocker pointed out that the addition of a car wash at HEB was approved in 2011.
Crocker said that while her project was still awaiting approval, a 147-page site plan submitted by the city was approved. This plan transformed Wells Branch Parkway from a two-lane road to a four-lane road, including a four-lane bridge over the drainage easement. The project is adjacent to her client’s lot.
“They built about 6 acres of impervious cover and installed five new discharge points and are dumping 100 more cfs (cubic feet per second) into a compromised channel,” said Crocker. “They knew it was compromised.”
Linseisen conceded that there were many sites that shared the pond, pointing out that it was unfortunate that there wasn’t a maintenance agreement between the properties. “All we’re asking is to verify if the pond is maintained properly,” said Linseisen.
“We see this problem with the last horse to leave the barn, time and time again. It’s always a good reminder to maintain solid, consistent documentation,” said Commissioner Rahm McDaniel. “This case is a mess. I don’t blame people for being frustrated. I think a denial makes sense.”
Chair Betty Baker said that she could not vote in favor of the appeal, given the lack of plans for what is on the ground now.
Meeker said that the case boiled down to a failure to communicate. “The beaver dam has to be addressed, the water has to be addressed, all these things have to be addressed. I see major amounts of time passing by and these things just sitting on people’s desks… I have great sympathy for everyone involved with this – even the beavers,” said Meeker.
Courtney explained to the commission that if a new site plan is submitted, it would likely be grandfathered under a chapter 245 ruling, as was the case for the original site plan, and be held to the city code that was in place in May 1986.
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