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Environmental Board backs variances for Board of Realtors building

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Sympathetic to site constraints and satisfied with the mitigation offered in return, the Environmental Board put its stamp of approval on a number of variances for a far West Austin tract last month.


The five-acre property is slated to become a three-story office building with underground parking for the Austin Board of Realtors.


Developers were asking for six variances in total for 4714 Spicewood Springs Road. Three of the variances would allow construction on slopes greater than usually allowed. They also requested variances for cut and fill exceeding four feet and variances that will reduce setbacks for rimrock on the property.


Watershed Protection’s Sylvia Pope told the board that setback variances like the one in this case have become more common recently.


“The undeveloped tracts left within our ETJ are ones that have been passed over by a lot of developers because of difficulties developing. So now you are going to see a lot more variances to reduce setbacks to less than 50 feet,” said Pope.


Developers were asking to reduce the setback from 150 feet to 50 feet in the center of the property and eight feet on the western portion of the property.


The board voted 4-2-1 to approve all six variances. Board Members James Schissler, Robert Deegan, Robin Gary and Chair Mary Gay Maxwell voted in favor of the variances and Board Members Mary Ann Neely and Marisa Perales voted against the variances. Board Member Jennifer Walker, who arrived after the case was underway, abstained.


“I think that when people buy property with the intent to develop it, they can’t buy a cliff and expect to put a shopping mall on it,” said Gary. “I think there needs to be reasonable expectations from the developer, given the site constraints.”


“These people are not maxing out their impervious cover. They have worked with staff, it seems, and staff has really pushed them to better the project,” said Gary. “I think there’s some good mitigation measures that they’ve offered.”


The property at 4714 Spicewood Springs is, in total, just over 5 acres. The land is within the drinking water protection zone and over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.


Armbrust and Brown attorney Richard Suttle explained that the site was challenging, saying it was about five acres of net site area, but that area was not contiguous due to topographic challenges.


Suttle said that they had worked with staff to develop the site with the least number of variances. That turned out to be six.


Staff placed four conditions on the variances, and asked that an “enormous brush pile” be removed along with invasive plants and shrubs. The city also asked that construction on the slopes be contained by vertical retaining systems that will minimize the construction footprint. Finally, they asked that the project incorporate enhanced water quality controls.


Additionally, the Environmental Board attached conditions that developers restore the eastern portion of the site with Hill Country Roadway buffer requirements.


An attempt by Perales to take up each variance separately was thwarted, with both Schissler and Deegan saying all of the variances would be necessary for the project to work.


“I think the applicant has worked with city staff to minimize the impact of the project on the environment. That’s what takes these permits months and months to get before us. Their job is to make sure whatever we see has already gone through several iterations to minimize the amount of cut and fill,” said Schissler.


Perales said it was “a bit unfortunate” to view the matter in such a black and white manner. She said that each variance should be evaluated separately, “based on whether it was protecting environmental integrity and no so much whether all of these are necessary for developing a particular project.”


Neely said that she was voting against the variances because she felt the developers could return with a better plan.

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