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Planning Commission delays vote on Cascades MUD to November

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission isn’t weighing in just yet on a proposed municipal utility district in the Onion Creek area, despite pressure from some city departments to move the project along.


The Cascades MUD is much closer to Austin’s city limits than is typical, and includes about 223 acres along the south side of Onion Creek, east of I-35. Developers Onion Associates, Ltd. are proposing to build 370 single-family units, more than 1,000 condominiums or townhomes, 63,555 square feet of retail space and 62,000 square feet of commercial space that will not be retail.


The commission last week unanimously agreed to grant a postponement until Nov. 12, but the Planning and Development Review Department was opposed. The Planning Commission is the last stop before the issue goes up for Council approval.


Unlike most municipal utility district cases, city staff does not plan to present a unified recommendation to City Council. Some departments, like the Watershed Protection Department, can see the benefits of a MUD over what would otherwise be allowed to be built. But because of the proximity of the Cascades MUD to the city limits, Planning and Development Review would rather see the land annexed.


Commissioner Danette Chimenti said that it was important to give the developer and an adjacent landowner time to work out remaining utility and easement issues.


“If Council does not consent to the MUD, then staff is recommending that we full-purpose annex this area, and that process has begun. Notification has gone out and the public hearings are coming up Oct. 17th and the 24th,” said City Planner Virginia Collier.


Collier explained that staff had been seeking recommendations for the project for “many months.”


“We’re frantically running out of meetings this year, and the annexation schedule is not flexible,” said Collier. “With notifications having gone out, we would have to restart that entire process and we could not meet the deadlines before the end of the year… We only have certain windows and this is our last window to get this annexed before the end of the year.”


Some commissioners disagreed with that assessment.


“The window only matters if this MUD does not go through,” said Commissioner James Nortey. “I know that staff wants to recommend annexation, but there is no guarantee or evidence that Council actually will annex this. So it just makes sense to allow the parties to go ahead and deliberate and see if they can reach agreement.”


Peter Cesaro with Graves Dougherty is representing an adjacent property owner, and also spoke in favor of the postponement. He explained that they were hoping a 30-day postponement would give them time to discuss utility extensions in the area.


Armbrust and Brown’s Richard Suttle, representing the developers, said that this was a rare case where time wasn’t critical to a project, and agreed with the month-long delay.


Planning and Development Review has recommended the land for full-purpose annexation in 2013. The land meets the Imagine Austin criteria for annexation – it is in the extra-territorial jurisdiction, and is contiguous to the city limits.


A city staff report explains that “the impact on annexation is arguably the most significant detriment to creation of this MUD.” If the city were to annex the MUD prior to its bonds being paid off, it would assume the remaining debt. For the Cascades MUD, those bonds are expected to total $36.9 million dollars. MUDs are not typically fully-annexed by the city because of the debt obligation.


Developers have proposed a 25-year schedule for their bonds, but staff recommends a shorter schedule of 15 years, because of the annexation issue.


On the other hand, staff estimates a 25-year net present value of $6.2 million if the land were to be annexed this year,


The Environmental Board has already opted not to endorse the project. Board members failed to approve a recommendation, in a vote of 3-4. Board Members Robert Deegan, James Schissler and Mary Ann Neely voted in favor of the project, and Chair Mary Gay Maxwell and Board Members Robin Gary, Marisa Perales, and Jennifer Walker were opposed.


The project has been recommended by the Parks and Recreation Board and the Water and Wastewater Commission, but was unanimously denied by the Urban Transportation Commission.

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