ZAP cites density issues in denying planned Steiner Ranch project
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
The last residential project proposed for the Steiner Ranch development failed to win over a concerned Zoning and Platting Commission last month.
“It’s like we’re holding this hostage, and that’s really not appropriate… (But) I don’t want to read the paper and see that some action this commission could have avoided or done differently could have saved a life. I wouldn’t sleep well at all,” said Chair Betty Baker.
The commission voted 4-3 to deny the approval of the subdivision, with Baker and Commissioners Patricia Seeger, Cynthia Banks, and Jason Meeker voting for the denial and Commissioners Gabriel Rojas, Sean Compton and Rahm McDaniel voting against.
Though the commission has very limited discretion to disapprove a subdivision, it can do so if there are concerns over health, safety or welfare.
Seeger explained that her main concern about the subdivision request was the density. Developers of the McCormick Ranch on Lake Austin were asking the commission to approve 148 lots on 211.58 acres.
“This is at the bottom of Steiner Ranch. We are looking at putting 130 more homes in there…I personally would like to see the density reduced, so that we don’t have as many homes down there should there, hopefully not, be another fire incident.” She noted that people would have very limited access out of that development.
Seeger said she was concerned with a request to have SF-2 zoning for a portion of the project, because the smaller lots allowed for more density. She questioned the wisdom of putting 130 more homes in when there had been no improvements to the ingress and egress, saying that at the time of the Steiner Ranch development agreement, wildfires were not as big of a concern as they are now.
Hank Smith of Texas Engineering Solutions, said they had been working with the fire department on emergency fire access, but wasn’t sure where those plans currently stood.
Smith told the commissioners that the current plan is actually less dense than originally planned. The project is part of the Steiner Ranch Development Agreement.
Smith said that there were other egresses and ingresses or planned for Steiner Ranch but “the city of Austin bought preserve land adjacent to us.”
“We’re basically surrounded by preserve land on one side. And when they bought that preserve land, they didn’t allocate any way to build roads through that,” said Smith. “So where we had roads stubbed up to have multiple ways in and out, the city blocked us by buying the Cortana Preserve…It’s something the city has actually forced on the developer by buying those lands.”
“The reason is that there are endangered species,” said Seeger. “But the people of Steiner Ranch could be endangered species if someone doesn’t figure out how to get these people out of that development if there is an imminent disaster.”
Steiner Ranch resident Angela Brooks spoke against the development, saying the schools couldn’t accommodate more children. Brooks said that if they wanted to build, they should pay to improve the roads and build more schools.
“We have a two-lane road that leads from where they want to build to the Bullpen, where Laura Bush and Canyon Ridge Elementary is… I think these people need to pop a tent out there and then try to get into town, and let them try and get out. If there was a fire between where we live and the top of the hill, we’d have no way out,” said Brooks. “It would be a huge traffic jam.”
“None of us want this. We don’t want to have to struggle to get in and out of our community,” said Brooks. “All this is going to do is boost the property values and make our taxes higher. It’s unacceptable.”
Developers have already received variances under Title 30 from the Travis County Commissioners Court, primarily for internal transportation issues. The development will return to commissioners court if approved by the city.
Smith explained that it could be worse.
“This is a really low-density development already. There could be much more density if the next developer comes through and wants to develop with the zoning in place, the subdivision in place, and the development agreement and build 300 homes,” said Smith.
“We were allocated a certain number of units – I believe somewhere around 2,000 units… This is all being done in accordance with that development agreement that was approved by the city, and the developers and the residents back in 2000,” said Smith. “It did have a cap, so we can’t keep building forever.”
Despite the cap, and limited amount of development that remains under the Steiner Ranch agreement, the case sparked a debate about development in Austin among the commissioners.
“I think a lot of times we kind of put houses down in a vacuum… when there is not the capacity for transportation or education in that area,” said Rojas. “Too many times we approve subdivisions and more people to move to a place that cannot possibly handle it, especially at that moment. Such is North Austin right now.”
“I think that there needs to be a lot more urgency in solving this problem right now,” said Meeker. “There needs to be a safe way to get in and out of that area, and right now that doesn’t exist.”
“The issues that we are weighing tonight, I think affect many areas of Travis County and the City of Austin,” said Compton. “I feel like this area is being singled out. This is a policy issue.”
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