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Council to discuss proposed changes in development on Lake Austin

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council members got an early start on discussion about a resolution that could change the way Lake Austin development takes place at their work session Tuesday.


Council Member Kathie Tovo sponsored the resolution, which could change how the city deals with rezonings and variances for Lake Austin properties.


“This entire item is very problematic to me,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell.


Tovo said that the issues broached in the resolution were not new, and were the reason the recently-dissolved Lake Austin Task Force was formed just about one year ago. She explained that zoning away from LA means a loss of environmental protections.


Unfortunately, the task force was conducted in a way that required 100 percent of those present to agree with each recommendation. This left one of the key issues relating to Lake Austin unaddressed, with no recommendation for how to deal with rezoning of LA properties aside from a request that city look at the issue.


Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak explained that there was extensive discussion about creating an environmental overlay that would offer protections regardless of zoning. Unfortunately, though a “large portion of the task force” supported an overlay it was one of the issues that the group did not reach consensus on. (The task force did not take, or record votes.)


“There are a number of protections that are included in LA zoning district. When the zoning is changed, because it’s not an overlay district, and doesn’t apply to all zoning, those do disappear,” said Lesniak. “The concern from the task force was that often property owners are rezoning specifically for that purpose.”


“There are setback requirements from the lake, vegetation buffers that are required as part of that district and other things that protect Lake Austin that do fall away when properties are rezoned,” said Lesniak.


Council Member Chris Riley pulled the item, saying that while he fully expected to support the resolution, one part of it “caught his eye.” Namely, he questioned the section that asked the City Manager to suspend rezonings that eliminated environmental protections associated with LA zoning until recommendations about preserving those protections are codified.


He noted that two rezoning cases in the area were on the same agenda as the resolution, and asked how they would be dealt with in “the wake” of the Lake Austin item.


“I think that we do, absolutely, need to move forward with this resolution,” said Tovo. “I would say that it should influence how we regard those zoning cases. I think it’s no coincidence that we’re seeing zoning cases come forward.”


Leffingwell clearly did not agree.


“In effect, instituting a moratorium on zoning changes… is liable to have lots of consequences and cause considerable hardships,” said Leffingwell, who said he was also concerned about another aspect of the resolution: transferring authority over Lake Austin variances to the Board of Adjustment.


“It’s going to make it hugely more difficult to get a variance, because of the requirement of a super-majority in granting all variances by the Board of Adjustment, which is not the case where those decisions are currently made.”


Currently, environmental variances at Lake Austin are heard by the Planning Commission. It was a process that was put in place while the task force was in session, and Lesniak confirmed that it would stay in place until Council took action to change it.


Leffingwell pointed out that, typically, task forces return to Council with their report and offer a briefing. He asked whether any consideration was given to that format, which allows for a presentation before Council takes action. No such presentation is currently scheduled.


“I think it would be great to have a presentation – at some point,” said Tovo. “There are a slew of really critical recommendations included, as I understand it, in our final report… It seemed to me very important to move forward with a few of them right now for some key reasons. We have lost a tremendous amount of land on Lake Austin. With every passing Council meeting we may lose more.”


Tovo said that it was important to determine the path of variances, and address upcoming zoning changes quickly.

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