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Neighbors lose fight against Lightsey plan

Friday, October 31, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

As an illustration of how heated the discussion about the South Austin Lightsey 2 project has become, Planning and Development Review Department Director Greg Guernsey opened the meeting by clarifying that his staff had not taken graft and that he found the suggestion “repulsive.”

Typically, commissioners have little discretion when voting on preliminary plans that meet code. But that didn’t stop the city’s boards and commissions from intensely scrutinizing this one, which took an unscheduled and atypical trip to the Environmental Board earlier this month and kept several city department heads in the meeting past 1 a.m.

In the end, two commissioners voted against approving the plan, and one abstained. Commissioners voted 5-2-1 to approve the preliminary plan, with Chair Danette Chimenti and Commissioner Jean Stevens voting against approval, and Commissioner Lesley Varghese abstaining from the vote. Commissioner Brian Roark was absent.

Noting that the plan met all state and city regulations, Commissioner James Nortey said there was “certainly nothing improper or illegal about the application as filed.”

Chimenti said that, despite their assertions to the contrary, she felt that staff’s actions failed to met “the letter of the code.” Stevens said the lack of communication to the neighborhood from the city was “very discouraging.”

The project, at 1805 Lightsey Road, is being developed by PSW Real Estate.

South Lamar neighbors were clearly, and visually, organized against the development. As in past meetings, they filled the room wearing bright yellow shirts. This time, they also carried signs that read, “Caution! Noncomplying Proposed Subdivision Ahead.”

Neighborhood opponents cited concerns with the proposed removal of nine protected trees and one heritage tree on the lot, worries that the project could exacerbate drainage issues in a flood-prone area, and fears that a proposed road would be dangerous.

Jim Witliff, who is a development consultant as well as a resident, presented a list of parts of the plan that he said were not compliant with city code. That list included incorrect procedures for approving heritage- and protected-tree removal, paying fees for tree removals, and block-length requirements. Witliff also said the plan had gone past the deadline for compliance and should be denied on those grounds.

Both staff and PSW representatives refuted Witliff’s claims.

Commissioner Stephen Oliver said it was the best neighborhood presentation he had ever seen.

PSW disputed the neighborhood’s allegations that the project would cause trouble. PSW engineer Casey Giles explained that drainage plans were well thought out, as was the plan for a road through the development. He also pointed out that most of the variances he had received from the city had been to avoid removing trees on the lot.

“We still have to go through the planning process. This doesn’t give us permission to do anything,” said Giles.

Oliver voted in favor of the proposal, but he expressed reservations about plans to construct a through street, despite his support for more connectivity in the city.

“I think we really need to figure out what we want to do with connectivity in this area,” said Oliver. “This connectivity might help just a smidgen, but is it worth the other problems that might come with it?”

PSW’s Brad Wilson said he certainly understood concerns about extending Aldwyche Road to Lightsey Road, and that it would be a big change for neighbors accustomed to living on a cul-de-sac. Wilson said he believed the road would provide connectivity and help make the neighborhood safer.

Glen Coleman with the consulting firm Llano Strategies spoke on behalf of the developers. He said there was “no way” the city would approve a private drive in the middle of central Austin.

“We don’t build that way. That’s not how we roll,” said Coleman. “We would not support that. We’re not here to build gated communities.”

Though he was unable to discuss the specifics, resident and Board of Adjustment member Bryan King confirmed that the neighborhood would be “pursuing other avenues.” The Planning Commission is the approving authority for preliminary plans, and it will not be going on to City Council.

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