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ZAP approves reduced site plan extension for Westlake Bible Church

Thursday, September 5, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Zoning and Platting Commission approved a generous 20-year site plan extension for a Southwest Austin church congregation last month, though the original request was trimmed back a bit.


Westlake Bible Church was asking for a 25-year site plan extension for their project, which was originally filed in 1993. The church is located on about 77 acres at 9300 FM 2244 in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.


The church has already developed more than 50 percent of its proposed plan for the campus, and was seeking an extension in order to complete the plan.


Instead, the commission voted 4-1 to approve a 20-year extension, with Commissioner Gabriel Rojas voting in opposition. Commissioners Cynthia Banks and Rahm McDaniel were absent.


“It’s 2013. Austin is unrecognizable from what it was in 1988. That’s 25 years ago,” said Commissioner Jason Meeker.


John Joseph of Coats, Rose, Yale, Ryman & Lee spoke represented the church at the meeting. He told the commission that the church had been a good steward of the land all along, without prompting, and said that staff wanted to recognize that through the longer 25-year extension.


Joseph also explained that it is difficult for churches to raise money they need for construction, and it was difficult to plan on shorter time frame.


“We’re really looking at $60 or $70 million in improvements out there, and over a five-year time frame it would be impossible,” said Joseph.


The city does typically recommend longer site-plan extensions for churches, due to a construction funding process that tends to be different than private construction. However, that longer extension is usually 10 years. In this case, staff was recommending a 25-year extension because development had been held to a higher standard than required so far, and the church was willing to agree to several conditions for future development.


Case Manager Christine Barton-Holmes told the commission that while longer site plan extensions were sometimes requested, they generally were not approved.


“We’re 20 years into a site plan, and they’re asking for 25,” said Commissioner Patricia Seeger. “I guess the question is – what are we going to look like 25 years from now? And what environmental rules will we have in place?”


Seeger went on to say that she supported longer site-plan extensions for religious assemblies, but was having difficulty stretching that length to 25 years. She pointed out that another extension could always be sought in the future.


“We don’t know what this area will look like in 25 years, and to grant any establishment a 25-year pass on current regulation that protects the environment is, to me, too much,” said Seeger.


In return for the longer extension, the church agreed to upgraded water quality controls, construction of an additional lane on Cuernavaca Road, compliance with Heritage Tree Ordinance requirements (exempting Ashe Juniper trees), and avoidance of the erosion hazard zone. The church also agreed to develop and maintain publicly-accessible open space, including ball fields and an 18-hole disc golf course.


“In my mind, a church is a civic use, particularly with the multiple uses that are accommodated at a facility like this. I’m familiar enough with this property… to know that it’s become a destination, truly a civic destination,” said Commissioner Sean Compton.


While the church agreed to these conditions with the reduced 20-year site plan extension, Chair Betty Baker indicated that she was not a fan of the tactic in a more general sense.


“I think it’s almost unfair when they come in just for an extension… to just sort of extract things that we’re not requiring on the original, approved site plan,” said Baker. “That sort of bothers me. But if the applicant concurs, then it doesn’t bother me.”

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