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Council backs Garza Ranch on first reading but cans Encino Trace project

Friday, August 23, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The fight over Garza Ranch isn’t quite over yet, though City Council definitively shut down amendments to the Save Our Springs Ordinance for another South Austin development last night.

 

City Council agreed to amend the SOS Ordinance for the long-disputed Garza Ranch project on first reading only on a vote of 5-2, with Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison voting in opposition. Ultimately, six votes are required to approve the amendment.

 

On Council direction, the amendments will return to Council in the future for another vote. Morrison said she was not ready to support the amendment, leaving open the possibility that she would support it when the item returns.

 

However, following the Environmental Board’s lead, Council voted to deny SOS amendments to the nearby Encino Trace project on a vote of 6-1, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell casting the sole dissenting vote.

 

Council Member Bill Spelman explained the reasoning behind his two votes, saying he had “a long-standing history” of voting in favor of an SOS amendment that would improve water quality over what code provided.

 

Under that reasoning, he voted against the Encino Trace, saying it was not a case where the city would get water quality anywhere close to what SOS would offer. Conversely, he was convinced amendments for the Garza Ranch would better serve the city, given the current development entitlements.

 

Roy Waley with the Austin Chapter of the Sierra Club told Council that his group opposed the variances to both projects, and didn’t see contributions towards trails as a reason to support the variance.

 

“There is a difference between the spirit of the agreement and the letter of the law of our ordinances,” said Waley, who dismissed the efficacy of water treatment structures against increased impervious cover.

 

“We’re talking about putting water with oil and grease and other pollutants right on the top of a feature recharge area that goes right into the aquifer and directly to our springs,” said Waley. “That is a very dangerous precedent to set.”

 

SOS Alliance Attorney Adam Abrams said his organization was waiting on a Public Information Request to come through, and asked for extra time so that they could make an informed decision.

 

Tovo pressed Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak for a reason to support the Encino Trace amendments, putting him in a difficult position. Both amendments were brought forward under the threat of state legislation that would effectively gut the SOS Ordinance.

 

Though staff has remained tight-lipped about potential state action, on Wednesday night Environmental Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell didn’t feel so obliged and spoke out, strongly, against the Encino Trace plan and what it could do to the ordinance if approved.

 

Maxwell pointed out that there was space on the land to build outside of the critical water quality zone – and was offended by plans to ignore the environmental controls in order to build on more valuable land that was closer to the road. She said the plan “smacks of a larger agenda.”

 

“I’m not on staff, and I’m a citizen, and so I don’t have to be terribly careful,” said Maxwell. “I believe there is even a larger motivation in this to try to weaken the SOS Ordinance…. I hate to say that, except I just think I can because I’m not being paid by anybody.”

 

“I’m fairly flexible, but when you start building in the critical (water quality zone) there’s something wrong,” said Maxwell.

 

Though presented together, the two projects are fairly different in their demands and history.

 

The Garza Ranch project, located at 3712 Ben Garza Lane, consists of 34.62 acres across eight tracts. The property fronts on MoPac and is behind the Brodie Lane Lowe’s Home Center. An application for Planned Unit Development zoning has already been submitted, and is still in process, though the owners offered to abandon that zoning request if the amendments were approved.

 

As a result of more than 20 years of conflict with the city, the land is currently subject to two different standards. Some parcels are regulated by current SOS code and are allowed 15 percent impervious cover. Other parcels are subject to the Williamson Creek Ordinance and allowed up to 65 percent cover.

 

Perhaps most significantly, owners of Garza Ranch asked for things to be calculated on gross site, not net site, which would increase the overall impervious cover by about 50 percent. They are also asking to construct a portion of Ben Garza Lane and buildings in the water quality transition zone.

 

The building would amount to 0.8 acre of construction – which developers have offered to offset by an overall reduction in impervious cover of double the construction. This means that they would reduce the available impervious cover by 1.6 acres.

 

Under these terms, the site would be developed at an impervious cover totaling just less than 45 percent.

 

The owners will also provide SOS-quality water treatment across all of the parcels, even though that isn’t required under the terms of their current settlement. They have also offered an easement for the Violet Crown Trail and pledged about $25,000 additionally towards the trail.

 

“It’s not what I prefer, but I think that it was in the original settlement agreement and is not an unreasonable request on the part of the applicant,” said Lesniak.

 

Encino Trace is located at 5707 Southwest Parkway. The 54 acres are subject to the SOS Ordinance. Developers Koontz/ McCombs were asking for gross site impervious cover of up to 25 percent – which would be an increase of a little over 100 percent over what is currently allowed.

 

They were also asking to go ahead with development within the water quality transition zone and critical water quality zone. They offered to provide an easement for the Oak Hill Trail and build to three-star Austin Green Energy building standards. Despite a rumor that both tracts were represented by the same attorney, informed sources indicate that they have different lawyers. Dan Wheelus represents the Garza family and Steve Metcalfe represents the owners of Encino Trace.

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