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Planning Commission denies zoning change in Zilker neighborhood

Monday, April 1, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Owners of a property just up the hill from Zilker Park at 1201 Robert E. Lee Rd. have a tough road ahead for their Sunflower project. Despite the late hour at the Planning Commission last week, more than a dozen people from the Zilker neighborhood stayed to oppose the rezoning, which currently has a valid petition against it.


The petition currently stands at 74.14 percent. Jeannie DeFrese, who spearheaded the petition drive, said that she expected that number to rise. She added that the people who hadn’t signed the petition were not necessarily in favor of the project, but she hadn’t been able to reach them.


Vinson Radke Investments is seeking a zoning change from SF-3 to SF-6 on the lot, which is just over 3 acres. The land is currently home to one single-family home. Developer Steven Radke spoke to the commission that with the current zoning, he would be able to build 18 duplex units on the land. With SF-6 zoning, they plan to build 18 single-family units.


The Planning Commission was split on the decision, ultimately voting 5-4 to deny the zoning change, with Commissioners Alfonso Hernandez, Stephen Oliver, Richard Hatfield and James Nortey voted in opposition.


Oliver supported the upzoning, saying the change would allow developers more flexibility in terms of where homes could be placed on the land, and the ability to build around existing trees and other features. He explained the current zoning did not provide the same ability to protect the environment.


Chair Dave Anderson said that while he agreed with Oliver in theory, this was not an appropriate site for SF-6.


“I completely agree that this is the part of town where infill should work, but for me, on a zoning case like this, it’s too steep. From an environmental perspective, the damage that you do on that steep slope could undo and outweigh the advantages of the development that is proposed,” said Anderson.


Radke says that they’ve tried to work with the neighborhood, but to no avail. Radke pointed out that the petition was established last September – before any compromises had been made.


“I think we are being treated unfairly in that regard,” said Radke, who told the commission that because of their current entitlements, he didn’t see the value in further negotiations with the neighborhood.


“We’re extremely far apart from the neighborhood. We’ve been in negotiations with the neighborhood for six months now, and it’s getting to a point in the process where we need to move forward, one way or another,” said Radke.


The neighborhood complaints about the proposed project are myriad. One of their larger concerns is the lot’s proximity to Barton Springs – just 500 yards from the main spring of Barton Springs.


The development slopes to a creek, which developers have claimed is a drainage ditch. The neighborhood says that it is Little Zilker Creek. Donald Blankenship, who is a senior research scientist at UT focusing on geology and hydrology, has concluded that the creek feed Barton Springs, though that remains a matter of some debate.


“If we have a battle between increasing density and infill versus decreasing density to protect aquifer recharge, this is the place to choose decreasing density,” said Blankenship. “If not here, where?”


Neighbors also explained that in the last few years, erosion along the slope had increased. They worried that increased development would only exacerbate the problem.


Opponents also raised concerns about increased traffic on the already-congested Robert E. Lee Road.


David Davis provided some history for the commission. He explained that the neighborhood feared what would happen with increased zoning, after their experience with Zilker Terrace. Though developers promised Zilker Terrace would be an environmentally-sensitive addition to the community, Davis showed an aerial view that illustrated the problem, showing a treeless development in an otherwise-green neighborhood. In light of that experience, explained Davis, the neighborhood was wary.


Davis said that the developers have told them that if they do not consent to the rezoning, they would build as many duplexes on the lot as would be allowed by current zoning.


“We don’t think they can; we don’t think they will. Because we know the topography of the current lot,” said Davis. He said that the neighborhood would support a rezoning with a plan for six or seven units on the property.

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