Monday, March 17, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council approves zoning changes for Rob Roy multifamily project

Despite the opposition of neighborhood residents, the City Council voted unanimously on March 6 to approve changes to land use rules that would allow developers to build a multifamily project.


Rob Roy residents were on hand at last week’s Council meeting to register their opposition to a zoning change that would advance the project. The Rob Roy Homeowners Association brought forward speakers who were part of a 1980s agreement to reserve the land for use as an office building.


“We thought a deal was a deal until just the other day,” said Rob Roy Homeowners Association President Herb Harris.


Armbrust and Brown attorney Richard Suttle spoke on behalf of the Canyons at Rob Roy,  a 17-acre part of the 444-acre 1989 Davenport Ranch Planned Unit Development. He addressed whether it was “fair” to change the land use from office to residential.


“Our city has changed. I mean, is it fair that we’re to the point in the City of Austin that when we’re doing a multifamily zoning change that we need to consider affordability? My client has decided that is fair,” said Suttle. “I guess conditions have changed. You have to determine whether it’s fair or not.”


In order to complete the Canyons at Rob Roy project, developers were asking for a change in land use from “office” to “MF-2.” This will allow them to proceed with building a maximum of 245 residential units. Staff supports the plan, as it is less-intense than the original use.


Council members decided that the proposed change was fair, and voted 6-0 to approve the change. Mayor Lee Leffingwell was absent.


That doesn’t mean that the multifamily project is a done deal. In a separate process, Rob Roy neighbors have asked a court to determine what constitutes “affected parties” in the restrictive covenant, in order to determine whether their permission is required before a zoning change can take place.


Neighbors do not support the change, and in addition to a valid petition (which stands at 28.21 percent), Rob Roy homeowners Russ and Terri Harris have filed suit against the City of Austin and Brandywine Acquisition Partners, LP. The suit is based on a claim that the Harris family is are “directly affected” by the restrictive covenant, and are a party to the covenant.


The restrictive covenant requires a majority of Council members and those parties directly affected to approve amendments. The Harris family argues that they are directly affected, and their approval is required for the change.


While that discussion is taking place outside of City Hall, last Thursday Council approved the change on their end. Council attached several conditions to the change, and developers agreed to include affordable housing and compliance with the new Watershed Protection Ordinance, should the project move forward.


These conditions proved key for Council Member Laura Morrison, who said that in cases that have valid petitions in place, she places a much higher standard on what benefits they could bring to the city. For Morrison, the possibility of affordable housing in that area of town and increased environmental protections met that bar. She said that she fully supported that question going through a court process and explained that the change to the covenant was not abnormal.


“Restrictive covenants are great, but it’s always been the case that they can be changed with a vote of four Council members,” said Morrison.


Council Member Kathie Tovo assured the neighbors that all of the Council members had put a lot of time into their decisions.


“To me, fundamentally, the question was whether this is an appropriate land use. We do have an imperative here in this city to create all kinds of housing in all parts of town for all kinds of people,” said Tovo. “And having housing – multifamily housing – in this area is an appropriate land use.”


Council Member Chris Riley noted that while there could be a legal issue that would ultimately prevent the rezoning of the property, which would be decided in the courts.


“I recognize that may well be an outcome. But as long as we have a policy decision to make, as is the case with a public restrictive covenant, then we have to carefully consider all the interests in the issue – which include the public interests that are embedded within our comprehensive plan. Those include affordable housing and environmental protections. In this case, with all of those interests on the table, I think they weigh in favor of the rezoning,” said Riley.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Armbrust & Brown: law practice based in Austin. Armbrust & Brown has donated to the Capital of Texas Media Foundation.

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Watershed Protection Ordinance: The city law, overhauled in 2013, that dictates Austin’s water and environmental code.

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