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Council OKs SOS Ordinance variance to settle One World Theatre suit

Friday, March 29, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Members of the Austin City Council voted narrowly Thursday to approve a site-specific exemption to the Save Our Springs Ordinance for the One World Theatre. The vote moves the city ahead along a path that calculated to end in a settlement of litigation between the parties.


It may also remove at least one source of legislative pressure on the city. State Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, filed a series of bills on March 8 aimed at how the city approaches project grandfathering. At least one of the prospective measures appears to target the One World case.


Six votes were needed to approve the measure because it is an exemption to the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Council Member Kathie Tovo was the lone dissenter.


Just before the vote, Tovo defended her rationale. “As I looked at the terms under the agreement, and looked at what would be required under (Save Our Springs) I just could not get comfortable with the extent to which this would be in variance.”


The One World Theatre issue goes back to the mid-1980s. That’s when theatre developers first secured permits to construct the facility. When it opened in 1999, however, they had yet to build a banquet kitchen and amphitheater – additions that Theatre operators contend they received permits for, though they were not completed as of its opening. City Council had not yet passed the Save Our Springs Ordinance when One World applied for permits.


A parking facility also turned into an issue because it too technically violated impervious cover restrictions in the SOS ordinance. City staff eventually red-tagged the project, stopping work on the amphitheater and banquet hall. The issue eventually ended up in court, with the city demanding that One World remove site improvements that violate the SOS ordinance.


When the Theatre began the construction process for its additions, the Save Our Springs Ordinance had passed. One World contends that they did not have to comply with those rules because they secured building permits before they went in to effect, a classic grandfathering argument.


Workman’s legislation was filed in the wake of a ruling from Attorney General Greg Abbott that suggested the city’s Project Duration Ordinance is in conflict with state law and therefore illegal. As a body, Workman’s efforts challenge the way Austin conducts its grandfathering business – mostly to a tune that, activists worry, could overturn much in the way of the environmental protection city staff and Council members have tried to attach to development permits over the past few decades.


Council members also voted to repeal the Project Duration Ordinance Thursday.


City of Austin Planning and Development Review Department director Greg Guernsey told Council members that the One World settlement would “allow for a minor expansion on the property” and additional impervious cover allowances in exchange for the construction of additional water quality protections and a settlement of the legal case.


City environmental officer Chuck Lesniak told Council members that the result of the agreement would bring some relief. “There would be significant water quality improvements to the status quo,” Lesniak said. “The site has been, from an environmental standpoint and an environmental code and compliance standpoint in disrepair and non-compliance for years. This agreement will get them – at least, from an environmental functionality standpoint (it would) significantly improve the situation out there.”


With the approval of the exemptions, One World will have to submit a new site plan that reflects the agreement between staff and the facility. By all appearances, however, the issue appears settled. The theatre will also be able to get city arts funding granted to it but then held up during the litigation.

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