Friday, September 27, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Council approves SOS Ordinance variances for Garza Tract

After many years of debate and heartburn, members of the Austin City Council late Thursday night approved a set of Save Our Springs Ordinance variances for a stretch of land in Southwest Austin known as the Garza Tract. With the approval, development on the site can now move forward.


Council Member Laura Morrison made the motion. In late August, Morrison joined Council Member Kathie Tovo in voting against the variances. Their combined two no votes were enough, thanks to SOS rules, to allow passage of the measure on first reading only.


The ordinance requires six of seven Council Members to vote in favor of a variance.


Given about a month, Morrison worked on changes to the variances that would ultimately make her more comfortable with voting for the item. In the end, they boiled down to three adjustments: A drop in allowable impervious cover from 48 percent to 43.5 percent, a prohibition on construction in transition zones around the property, and a limit on acceptable uses on the property.


Upon final reading, Morrison took the opportunity to explain the rationale behind her change of heart. She ran down a list of owner concessions and city allowances. She noted that she was particularly moved by city staff analysis that illustrates a dramatic reduction in pollutants with the Garza deal compared to what could have been built under state grandfathering laws.


“Those reductions were absolutely compelling, there is no doubt about that,” Morrison said. “They went from big tall bars of pollutants to short, little bars of pollutants – to  me, I found that reduction very compelling.”


In her remarks, Morrison also referenced the potential of legislative intervention, should Council action not satisfy the Garza family.


“Another piece of the discussion has been that there are other avenues that the property owner could pursue, namely going to the Lege – and if we could come to an agreement, that this would put a long saga to rest,” Morrison offered. “In general, I don’t think we should use the Lege as our guidepost for decisions that we make about Austinites and for Austinites – because we are elected to do that – but I do think, on the other hand, we need to be cognizant of the reality of the dynamic, and I know it’s important that we take reasonable approaches.”


Until Thursday’s vote, conflict between the Garza family and the city kept property stuck between two different development standards. Segments covered by the SOS Ordinance could hold up to 15 percent impervious cover. The rest, under the old Williamson Creek Ordinance, could boast up to 65 percent impervious cover.


Council action allows development on the property to move forward.


Tovo maintained her opposition to the modified set of variances for the tract and offered no explanation from the dais Thursday. But since there were six votes in favor of the variance, she was able to exercise that option without any potential further impact on the city.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Garza Tract: In the 1980s, Eli Garza donated and sold 22 acres of land to TxDot which were then used for MoPac and William Cannon Drive. In 1992, he platted most of the rest of the property, and since then the tract has been in and out of City Council and court over grandfathering issues.

Save Our Springs Ordinance: A 1992 ordinance to restrict development in the Barton Creek watershed.

Vested Rights: A doctrine that protects a person who won a legal decision from a legislature overturning that decision.

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