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Environmental Board worries about subdivision above Barton Springs

Monday, January 6, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Environmental Board has taken the unusual step of weighing in on a case not formally before them, letting the city know exactly what its members think about a subdivision planned to sit on Little Zilker Creek.

The board, though not officially included in the process, was so concerned about a proposed subdivision on Robert E. Lee Road that they asked for a briefing and public comment and ultimately passed a resolution making a recommendation to the Planning Commission and City Council. The action came at the board’s Dec. 18 meeting.

In those suggestions, the board unanimously recommended that any approval for Blue Bonnet Hills wait on results of a dye trace currently underway, that city biologists survey Little Zilker Creek spring for endangered salamander habitat, and that hydrologists evaluate the spring to see if it is part of the Barton Springs complex.

Board Member James Schissler abstained from the vote, given his previous work on a similar project, Board Member Marisa Perales was recused, and Board Member Jennifer Walker was absent.

Originally called the “Sunflower Project,” developers unsuccessfully tried to upzone the property last spring. (See In Fact Daily, April 1) With a valid petition that stood at almost 80 percent, the neighborhood successfully quashed that plan, and proved just as ready to fight the subdivision.

At the heart of neighborhood complaints was a staff determination that the area, which is located in the Urban Watershed and the Barton Springs Contributing Zone, should abide by the less-stringent restrictions of the Urban Watersheds.

Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak guessed that there were about 19 acres in the overlap that could be similarly re-subdivided, which is “seven-hundredths of one percent of the Barton Springs Zone.”

“That’s not to say that this isn’t significant. I believe in the concept of death by a thousand cuts. I’m not willing, generally to say, ‘it’s just a little bit here, or a little bit there.’ Every developer would like to make that argument… I am not advocating that position,” said Lesniak. “This is a policy decision that was made years ago…

The code overlaps here,” said Lesniak. The only way to clarify the code is by Council action. If Council took the time to clarify this issue one way or another, it wouldn’t apply to this property. They would have 245 (grandfathering) protection.”

This choice mystified Save Barton Creek Association’s Jackie Goodman, Zilker Neighborhood Association’s David King and attorney Brad Rockwell, who were joined by South Austin neighbors to speak against that choice.

“The Zilker Neighborhood Association believes that the protection of Barton Springs and endangered species is more important than a few condos,” said King.

Many feared that the choice to stick to Urban Watershed restrictions alone would result in another project like the Zilker Terraces, which are very unpopular with the neighborhood.

“When you look at the result of the designation of Urban Watershed, the result of that is Zilker Terraces. That is the result, and that designation does not fit in this area. That’s what I’m seeing. I’m stunned that was even allowed, to be honest with you. It just makes me so frustrated and angry, really angry, that that happened,” said Board Member Mary Ann Neely. “I think we need a solution from this board so that doesn’t happen on this property.”

Lesniak explained that the land exists in an “overlap” of the Barton Springs Zone and the Urban Watershed. For the developer, there is a significant difference Urban and Barton Springs Zone is impervious cover and water quality treatment.

Under Barton Springs Zone requirements, buildings would be limited to 20 percent impervious cover and water quality treatment required.

But, in this case, the requirements that were determined by zoning allow 45 percent impervious cover.

Lesniak pointed out that historically, sites located in the Urban Barton Springs Zone are treated as in the Urban Watershed. But, he noted that doesn’t come up very often because the area is already heavily developed.

Lesniak said city staff was following a precedent set by his predecessors in determining which part of the code took precedence over the other.

“Lacking a resolution of that overlap in the code, we would continue to do that,” said Lesniak. “That’s really what it comes down to.”

Lesniak said the determination was “consistent with the city’s goals for a dense, compact city.”

Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch took exception to that idea, saying the SOS Ordinance clearly applied to the project.

“We need to follow the law here. And we need to protect Barton Springs,” said Bunch. “We’re right up the hill from Barton Springs; this isn’t 10 or 20 miles away.”

Bunch said that the approval of the development could determine what is done with several large, undeveloped lots on the nearby hillside.

“We’re not talking about shutting down development in Central Austin or shutting down density where we want to promote it. This is the absolute wrong place to promote density,” said Bunch. “Please don’t be telling me that good environmental policy is to plump up density right on top of Barton Springs. I’m offended by that.”

Bunch said the issue was a matter of interpreting code that was already there, and that “staff is coming up with an interpretation that flies in the face of the plain language of the ordinances.”

Many, including the board, asked for any recommendation to hold off until a dye trace is completed. Lesniak said that, from a regulatory standpoint, the dye trace would not be significant. He explained that staff had already assumed it was in the contributing zone, and “the most the dye trace could do would be to confirm that.”

At this time, there is no indication that the case will ever go before the City Council because the developer is not seeking a zoning change or other approvals that require Council action. The Planning Commission likely will not have a major role either since they are required by state law to approve subdivisions that meet legal requirements.

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