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Divided Council approves new definition of amphitheaters

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Amphitheaters are no longer a matter of speculation in Austin. As of last Thursday, the city has a definition for the venues. On Thursday, City Council voted 7-0 to approve an ordinance that defines amphitheaters and requires that their approval go through a “conditional structure” process.


Residents from Hill Country Estates and the Covered Bridge subdivision spoke in favor of the ordinance at City Council. The ordinance will not affect the construction of the Promiseland West amphitheater, which has faced vocal opposition and a lawsuit from neighbors. However, the handful of neighbors that spoke thanked Council for the action, singling out members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo for their work on the new ordinance.


Planning and Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven explained that while the initial request from Council was to make amphitheaters a conditional use in all zoning districts, staff felt like this was not the best way to handle it. Because there are many uses that can take place within an amphitheater, explained Rusthoven, staff determined that it should be the structure that is conditional.


This means that the amphitheater itself would require Planning Commission approval – making it a conditional structure. Rusthoven later clarified that the process “largely mimics” the conditional use process, in terms of approval criteria and process of appeal.


Rusthoven told the Council that existing amphitheaters would be grandfathered, and could expand up to ten percent without triggering the approval process. He also said that staff would work with the city’s Music Office for help on sound issues with amphitheater permits in the future.


The largest sticking point remained whether or not to include a capacity limit in the new ordinance. Rusthoven told Council that, because the definition was fairly broad, it would be best to have a capacity threshold attached to it.


The initial definition put that cap at 100 people. Though the Planning Commission discussed lowering that to 25 people, they ultimately voted to remove any capacity threshold. Rusthoven told City Council that staff would support either minimum, and it was the general consensus that some kind of number was a good idea.


“To be frank, when we were looking at what a lot of other cities did, they define it as a place that holds a thousand or more. We knew that would probably not go over very well here, so we cut that down to one hundred. That still was not received very well at the Planning Commission. One of the planning commissioners suggested 25 – we would agree to that number as well,” said Rusthoven. “We were just looking for a minimum size so there wasn’t any confusion about a couple of park benches.”


The problem, explained Rusthoven, that was without a limit in place, smaller structures like gazebos or prayer gardens could be fingered as amphitheaters by disgruntled neighbors, who would then have to ask the Board of Adjustment for clarification.


After a consultation with Rusthoven, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole made an amendment to implement a 100-person capacity minimum for amphitheaters that would require a trip to the Planning Commission. The amendment didn’t sit well with all of the Council members.


Tovo, in her words, “offered an opportunity for reflection” on the figure, though she held back on putting another amendment forward. She said that 100 was still a pretty big venue, and suggested a 25-person cap might be more appropriate.


“I would also like to suggest a moment of reflection,” said Morrison. “The minute you go to 100, you may well be putting into place some structures that could have a pretty big gathering. 100 people is a lot of people. I just think that we’re going to really solve the problem if it’s 25, and we’re still going to run into problems if it’s 100.”


“This has been a very complicated process, and a very contentious process, and to come all this way and to end up with something that might still cause problems – I just don’t think that 25 is going to be too much of an onus,” said Morrison.


Eventually, Cole settled on 50 people as compromise, though Tovo and Morrison voted against that number.


“I’m just concerned about people who do have gazebos and have 25 kids over. Y’all know I have some pretty big parties at my house,” said Cole.

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