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Commissioners OK plans for Community First Village for homeless

Wednesday, August 14, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

After two hours of passionate debate Tuesday, a unanimous Travis County Commissioners Court gave social outreach ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes the go-ahead to build a recreational vehicle park for the homeless in eastern Travis County. At least two commissioners say they want similar parks in other parts of the county.

The issue brought to the meeting a standing-room only crowd which one county employee said was the largest group of people she’d seen attend the meeting at one time all year.

Supporters of the development played to the court’s moral and ethical sensitivities. Those against the development generally cited safety, property value slumps, and poor communication from city and county officials as motivation for their opposition.

Community First Village will sit on 27 acres of land near the intersection of Hog Eye Road and Imperial Drive. It will consist of 12 lots – a large commercial lot and 11 single family lots capable of accommodating up to 200 people. Crews will build four housing models for the community ranging from a $375-per-month house down to a $90- per-month canvas-sided guest dwelling. For tenants in homes without electricity and plumbing, the development will include a laundry, restroom and shower facility. The development will also include a self-sustaining vegetable garden, free-range chickens, rabbits, and a tilapia aquaponics operation.

The preliminary plan “meets all of the requirements laid out in (Texas Administrative Code) for approving their plan, so we are recognizing its approval,” said Anna Bowlin of the county’s development services and long range planning department.

After the presentation of a short, poignant film putting faces to the city’s homeless population and featuring Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo expressing his support for the construction of “a safe place for people who want help,” Mobile Loaves & Fishes president and CEO Alan Graham told the audience the cost of the project will exceed $8 million. “One hundred percent of that will come from private investment and (the project) will not receive any city, state, or federal funds,” he said. Graham read off a list of area groups and organizations he said support the project, including Caritas of Austin.

“Caritas of Austin wholeheartedly and enthusiastically supports Community First Village,” said Jo Katheryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas. “Caritas plans to have a supportive services presence. We’re going to partner with Mobile Loaves & Fishes to provide case management services and access to mental health and medical services for the folks (who) live at Community First.”

Supporters wearing red buttons with “Home!” emblazoned on them overwhelmingly outnumbered opposition in the courtroom. “So many people wanted to be here, but they couldn’t,” said Tony Federico, HOA Resident Representative for the Woodland Hills Neighborhood. “They’re here in the form of their petition—their (nearly 500) signatures.”

Linda Chapman, who owns 23 acres of land next to the proposed development, said neighbors weren’t informed about the RV park until it was too late to block it. “Nothing was ever mentioned (regarding) what this truly was about and that’s made us feel very much opposed in the first place because we had no information,” she said. “Make a bold decision. Make a decision for the people who live in the area and their children. Please do not approve this.”

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis was ebullient in his support of the plan, telling the audience he spent the weekend going over all the plan documents, even touring the site. “Looking at the history of a lot of things you’ve been doing…I’d like to applaud you for your effort,” Davis told Graham, describing some of Graham’s unsuccessful attempts to secure a location for a homeless RV community park. “You have really gone a few miles beyond the call of duty.” Davis said he wants to see this sort of housing in north, south, east, west and central parts of the city.

Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez tried to allay opponents’ fears by explaining the vote was really out of the court’s hands. “Please understand that our process here at the county is not like that at the city,” she said. “When we have these kinds of preliminary plans introduced to us, if they meet state standards then we cannot turn the plan down. It’s not a matter of being for or against the issue, it’s about meeting our responsibilities and approving plats that meet state standards.”

Arguably the second most outwardly excited commissioner to promote this cause was Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who said he wants to bring a similar community to southwest or western Travis County.  “When I first started hearing about this, I made the commitment to Alan Graham,” he said. “I’m committed to do that. It’s the right thing to do. And I’m going to stand committed.”

Graham said he’s already raised nearly $4 million of the cost for the development and believes he can reach his capital goal by the end of this year. He anticipates Community First will be completed sometime in 2015.

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