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Planning Commission denies tree variance for Co-op to develop housing

Wednesday, April 3, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission, following the Environmental Board’s lead, has voted to deny a variance that would allow the University Co-op to remove a Heritage Tree.

 

A 31-inch heritage pecan tree currently stands in the middle of three lots at 507 West 23rd Street. The owner, University Co-op, is hoping to develop the lots into student housing. Developers say the placement of the tree prevents this, and are seeking a variance from the city to remove the tree.

 

But with questions remaining about whether the tree could be transplanted, and absence of a site plan, the Planning Commission voted 6-3 to deny the variance. Commissioners Alfonso Hernandez, Brian Roark and Richard Hatfield voted in favor of the variance.

 

“In my mind, this has not met the code that is in the Heritage Tree Ordinance. We don’t have a site plan before us, they could not possibly have exhausted all of the options, as the ordinance calls for, because there isn’t a site plan,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti.

 

Hernandez disagreed.

 

“This one, to me, is not a very difficult one. It’s clearly preventing a reasonable use, in my mind. It is directly in the middle of this property. It’s clear that the city and residents of that neighborhood want more student housing,” said Hernandez. “These are exactly the types of projects we want in that area. For me, that need far outweighs the need to preserve this one tree with its myriad problems.

 

Hernandez said that he found it difficult to ask a developer to incur the expense of moving a tree, when there was no guarantee that the tree would ultimately survive. City arborists have evaluated the tree and have recommended the variance if transplanting is not a viable option.

 

Developers have said that the relocating the tree would cost about $146,000, which is more than they would like to spend. Instead, they would like to pay mitigation for the tree removal, which would go towards planting new urban trees. Agent Mike McHone said that they would like to move forward with $37,200 in mitigation fees.

 

“Transplant one tree? Or plant one hundred trees. We would like to plant one hundred trees,” said McHone. “There’s no magic money. Any money spent on this project will come from the students that will ultimately live there and pay the rent. This is an opportunity for the city of Austin to uphold the neighborhood plan and allow us to build a project that will serve the University of Texas student body.”

 

When asked whether it might not be possible to build something else that would preserve the tree, McHone stressed the reasonableness of that use. He maintained that “reasonable use” in this context would be building the planned student housing, not a smaller project or house that could accommodate the existing tree.

 

City Arborist Keith Mars explained that city staff determined that the tree prevented a reasonable use of the property by looking at the location, zoning, and desired use of the land. With a location blocks from campus, an allowed height of 175 feet, and no restrictions on impervious cover or floor-to-area ratio, they determined that the tree prevented the type of development most appropriate for the property.

 

McHone said that without a variance, developers were reluctant to commit to an expensive site plan.

 

“We believe that Co-op has demonstrated through the years its commitment to the neighborhood, and would like to continue to that,” said McHone. “All we’re saying is that this property has 175-foot zoning, and it should be developed in accordance… No developer is going to say “I’m going to spend $300,000 developing a site plan, and come back to the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission, already having spent $300,000 on a site plan, in the hopes that this tree might then be removed.”

 

Chair Dave Anderson was unconvinced, saying, “There’s a long way to go between $300,000 and getting some sort of concept that would allow us to evaluate that portion of the ordinance.”

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