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Council bounces first project from developer under new ordinance

Monday, June 30, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The city’s first, somewhat rushed test of its new Vested Rights Ordinance is complete and City Council has rejected a developer’s request for a Southwest Austin project. The test came at last week’s meeting, which did not end until after 1 a.m. Friday.


Council rejected the request for a Project Consent Agreement that would allow Weekly Homes to move forward with their project at 5816 Harper Park Drive. The Council voted 3-4, with Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Members Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voting in opposition.


The property is in the Barton Springs zone and would have required a site-specific amendment to the Save Our Springs Ordinance.


The Council created a special exception for the project when they approved the new Vested Rights ordinance earlier this month. The exception allowed those seeking Project Consent Agreements in June to bypass the boards and commissions process and go directly to City Council for approval. That speed did not prove to be beneficial.


“We’re talking about 75 percent impervious cover instead of 15 percent… I don’t think I can support this,” said Morrison. “I think the PCAs are going to be a good tool if we can really come to some agreement, where there is some improvement. But this is very close to the project they were looking at in the first place. I don’t see much improvement. And that’s an extraordinary impervious cover.”


Project Consent Agreements give the city a way to approve projects that achieve more environmental protection and land-use compatibility than what could otherwise be built under existing vested rights.


Even though Council took up the issue well after midnight, people both for and against the agreement stayed late to argue their case. Developers previously won grandfathering rights through a court battle, though at that time it was slated for a commercial use.


Nearby residents, who spoke in favor of the agreement explained that they had worked hard with developers to come up with a plan they could support. They said that they would much rather have houses built than have an office building in their backyards.


Other neighbors spoke against the project, saying the land was filled with critical environmental features. One of those against the project said that the developers had exhibited “thuggish” behavior, threatening those against it with code compliance. Those allegations were denied.


Austin Sierra Club’s Roy Waley asked City Council to either postpone or reject the agreement. He said that there were just too many loose ends. Both Waley and Morrison noted that the final agreement that Council was being asked to vote on was written at about 11:30 p.m. that night.


“Let them build what they say they can build there,” said Waley. “If that’s what was best for them to build there, that’s what they’d be building there.”


In December 2013, the developers won a zoning change from Council that would allow them to build a freestanding condominium project. However, condominiums are not recognized under the code they fought to be grandfathered to – the 1985 Barton Creek Ordinance. (See Austin Monitor, May 8.) Because of that, the site plan was rejected by the city.


City staff recommended approval of the agreement. Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey said the project would be more compatible than the office alternative. Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak explained that the project would reduce the pollution load by two-thirds when compared to the vested office building project. However, if the project complied with Save Our Springs standards, there would be no pollution load.

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