Thursday, September 25, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Development headed to Environmental Board

A controversial South Austin development is on hold for at least another month, after the Planning Commission opted to take the unusual tack of sending the development’s preliminary plan to the Environmental Board for comment.

The PSW Real Estate development at 1805 Lightsey Road has come under fire at the Board of Adjustment and during the Citizens Communication portion of two Environmental Board meetings.

The plan has already been postponed twice at the Planning Commission. Though developers pushed for it to be heard at Tuesday’s meeting, they ultimately agreed to wait until the commission’s Sept. 23 meeting. The Environmental Board will offer its input at its Oct. 15 meeting, though city code does not require that the plan be reviewed by the board.

Neighbors opposed to the project asked commissioners to send the case to the Environmental Board so it could take a closer look at the proposed removal of heritage and protected trees and drainage issues.

“I tend to think that this is simply an effort to delay by people who don’t want the project to go through,” said Commissioner Brian Roark, adding that he would agree to send the case to the Environmental Board out of deference to Chair Danette Chimenti, and if there was a time-certain date it would return to the Planning Commission.

Commissioner James Nortey said that although he tended to agree with Roark, public interest made it worth the delay.

Though commissioners may have had their doubts about the sincerity of the neighborhood’s request, they voted 8-0 to send the case to the Environmental Board, with Commissioner James Hatfield absent. Sending a preliminary plan to the Environmental Board is highly unusual, but within the rights of the Planning Commission.

“I think there are some environmental issues that I don’t feel I’m qualified to assess, and in sending it to the Environmental Board, we get their expertise,” said Chimenti. “I am just thinking we could use all the help we could get.”

PSW Homes community manager Ross Wilson made it clear that the delay could be costly, however.

“There is a significant financial burden if you delay this,” said Wilson. “This has been going on two or three months … and that could be directly reflected in the sales price of the units.”

Jim Witliff spoke on behalf of the South Lamar and Barton Hills neighborhoods. He asked that the case be sent to the Environmental Board for vetting. Witliff suggested that the case be considered in concert with the South Lamar Mitigation Study, which he explained had some “very startling” preliminary findings.

Witliff said that in his 30 years as a development consultant, he “had never seen a lot that has as many noncompliant issues.”

“I think the right way to vet this is to send it to the Environmental Board and let them decide,” he continued. “Maybe it comes back and they say, ‘Hey, it’s good to go.’ And then they’ve got some momentum and we look like fools. We’re willing to risk that.”

PSW Homes engineer Casey Giles pointed out that some of the issues being discussed were not tied to the preliminary plan at all. He said they had only received a waiver to remove one heritage tree out of the 18 on site. Giles said the development met all drainage requirements, and he wasn’t sure why the site’s slopes were presenting a problem.

“I was unaware of the site’s environmental issues, because only the trees had ever been brought up. The others — slope and drainage — are common and meet code,” said Giles.

Because the case is a preliminary plan, its approval rests with the Planning Commission and will not ultimately be decided by City Council though developers can appeal the decision to City Council.

This story has been corrected to show that the case has not been before the Board of Adjustment.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

South Lamar: A major thoroughfare in South Austin, South Lamar is a primary route to and from downtown, as well as one of the city's main corridors.

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