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Environmental Board fails to reach agreement on Steiner Ranch variance

Monday, April 8, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though Steiner Ranch is almost entirely developed, attempts to build out the remainder of the area continue to raise hackles at the Environmental Board Wednesday night.


The board heard a variance request from a representative of Taylor Morrison Homes, which owns one of the few undeveloped tracts of land in Steiner Ranch. Developers were seeking cut and fill variances in order to construct a 55-unit townhome project at 4200 Steiner Ranch Boulevard in far northwest Austin.


Board Members Mary Ann Neely, Marisa Perales and Bob Anderson voted to deny the variance request but Board Member James Schissler voted against the recommendation to deny. Because Chair Mary Gay Maxwell and Board Members Robin Gary and Jennifer Walker were absent, the three votes recommending a denial of the variance were insufficient for the motion to pass. So the case moves on without a recommendation from the board.


“The applicant did not appear to take the terrain and steep slopes into consideration, with input from the staff as well as comments from this board, to the extent that could have been achieved in a superior plan,” said Anderson. “This variance request is over and above variance previously granted through the Steiner Agreement.”


The board had previously postponed the case, asking the applicant to work further with staff to come up with a better plan. They returned to the board with a more humble request. Instead of asking for a cut and fill variance of 14 feet and 16 feet, they reduced their variance request to two 12-foot cut and fill variances.


The request goes beyond the Steiner Ranch agreement, which already allows less-stringent development standards. Up to eight feet of cut and fill is allowed within the development without a variance.


Consultant Sarah Crocker spoke to the board on behalf of Taylor Morrison Homes, who is developing the site. Crocker explained that from the beginning, Steiner Ranch has presented a challenge to developers.


“It’s basically a series of ridges and valleys. That’s what it is. It’s basically the poster child for what Hill Country is,” said Crocker. “Since the submittal of the first preliminary in 1986, there hasn’t been one application submitted out here without variances.”


“Despite the amount of slope we have (on the site), I think the engineer did a pretty remarkable job of keeping the areas of the variances contained,” said Crocker. “When we first turned it in, it wasn’t like that. There was a lot more cut and fill scattered all over the place, and we have eliminated a lot of that.”


City staff remained opposed of the variance, saying the design of the town homes had not been modified to consider the existing topography. Of particular concern was one home, whose entire lot was essentially on fill of eight feet, explained Senior Environmental Reviewer Brad Jackson.


“There’s other areas of cut and fill already on the site. This particular area seemed kind of like a stretch,” said Jackson.


Overall, Jackson said that the need for the variance was caused by the method of development chosen, which does not meet the standards for granting a variance.


Crocker explained that their goal was to reduce all cut and fill to 12 feet or less, which was accomplished by reducing the size of some building footprints.


In all, five of the 55 units were reduced in size. Two units were reduced to 2,509 square feet from 3,164 square feet. Three other units were reduced to 2,699 square feet from an originally planned 3,122 square feet.


Crocker told the board that this would be the last tract that would need a variance, however, and said that she was looking forward to development of the some 2500 homes coming to an end soon.


“I will be happy when it’s all wrapped up,” said Crocker, who has worked on a number of projects in Steiner Ranch over the years.

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