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Planning Commission lays out criteria for reconsidering cases

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission sent a message last week to those hoping for reconsideration of issues. The message was simple: be prepared.


Last month, the commission voted 6-3 to deny a variance that would have allowed developers to remove a 31-inch heritage pecan tree. The tree currently stands in the middle of three lots at 507 West 23rd Street. The owner, University Co-op, would like to remove the tree in order to build student housing that the current 175-foot zoning would otherwise allow.


The Co-op is being represented by agent Mike McHone, who hoped that additional information about plans for the lot could change the commission’s minds about the variance, or at least give them a reason to put the variance back on their agenda for reconsideration.


In the end, the commission opted not to rescind or reconsider the motion taken at their March 26 meeting. With a two-thirds majority required, the Planning Commission had an even split on the matter, with Chair Dave Anderson and Commissioners James Nortey, Danette Chimenti and Myron Smith voting against reconsideration, and Commissioners Richard Hatfield, Stephen Oliver, Alfonso Hernandez and Brian Roark voting in favor. Commissioner Jean Stevens was absent.


McHone was not afforded the chance to state his case at Tuesday night’s meeting. Instead, a split commission took the opportunity to discuss what might warrant a reconsideration of a case in a more general sense.


“We need to be careful and we need to be very clear that you’d better be prepared when you come to our commission,” said Anderson. “You’d better be prepared.”


“This case doesn’t necessarily die completely if it’s denied here. It can be reborn, through a lot of heartache and dollar signs, but it can be reborn,” said Anderson.


One of the things the commission seemed divided about was whether it was clear how much information should be provided for heritage tree variances. Chimenti pointed to a case last year that looked closely at site plans, noting that contentious process was “common knowledge.” But, despite the longevity of that particular case, City Arborist Keith Mars pointed out there have only been a handful of heritage tree variances considered by the Planning Commission since the ordinance was implemented.


Nortey said the issue for him was that the lack of information was due to a choice by the applicant, not the fault of staff. He said he was concerned that – absent a broader discussion of guiding principles – reconsidering the case could set a precedent for those who simply didn’t get the result they wanted from the commission.


“I don’t see why it would be appropriate to review this. I will be voting against the motion unless we first discuss how we guide ourselves in making this a discussion. Otherwise it’s too ad hoc,” said Nortey.


Anderson said that Nortey’s position was “exactly correct.”


Mars said the applicant had more information about a site plan for the lot, and requested a reconsideration “based on additional information being brought to light.” He said that he was approached about the new information, after a number of commissioners expressed concern from about the amount of information provided about specific building plans. At their previous meeting there was quite a bit of discussion about whether or not the information provided was sufficient to determine whether the heritage tree prevented reasonable use of the tract. (See In Fact Daily April 3) Mars explained that information was what the applicant was now able to provide.


Commissioner Oliver, who voted in favor of reconsideration, explained his reasoning.


“If there is information that was critically lacking that can sway this commission one way or the other, to feel comfortable that all the facts have been before us, I feel it’s worth hearing,” said Oliver. “I left our last meeting on this disappointed that not all of the information was there.”


“We had two critical Imagine Austin type topics before us: tree protection and density,” said Oliver. “And they were butting heads in a critical spot and that should not be taken lightly. I felt the lack of a site plan made it too light of an issue.”

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