Oak Hill residents stay late to warn against project
Monday, December 1, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano
Though both sides recognized the threat of floods in the area, an Oak Hill project that some worry could make floods worse got an initial approval from City Council at its last meeting.
Developers are seeking a zoning change from Limited and General Office Use to Multifamily and Mixed Use, and to change the Future Land Use Map from Office to Mixed Use. The change will affect about 28.8 acres of land at 5436 Vega Ave. and 6601½ Rialto Blvd.
Council voted 6-0 to approve the FLUM change and zoning request on first reading. Council Member Bill Spelman was absent.
Council Member Laura Morrison pointed out that Council will be considering interim drainage solutions for South Lamar before its Dec. 11 meeting, and proposed that before second and third readings city staff could also work on plans for this tract at the same time. She suggested that the Lantana Tract proposal could serve as a “pilot project, sort of,” to see what would work in terms of increasing the efficacy of things like flow modeling and detention pond design for flood-prone areas.
Neighbors concerned about the impact the development would have on flooding in the area stayed past 2 a.m. at Council’s most recent meeting to speak against the change. Many described how flooding had increased in the area recently, which they attributed to increased development.
Paula Cox has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. She asked for the city to hold off on building permits until a study of the area by the Watershed Protection Department is complete. She said that while the city has done some things to help mitigate flooding since the area was annexed, those things have been small and “never what was promised.”
“We know it is worse. My house has had water in it three times in the last year. It’s scary. It’s costly,” said Cox. “It has changed everything in our neighborhood.”
Cox explained that in years past, heavy rains had not caused flooding in her house, but that “what’s changed is the development upstream.”
Morrison said that although it was not easy to prohibit new construction while the parties worked out infrastructure concerns, she had recently learned that the local government code does lay out a process for a moratorium.
“I don’t know if it’s actually been exercised in the state of Texas, but it’s not something that we can really do here tonight,” said Morrison.
Resident Rodney Baker said that flooding has closed his road three times in the 14 years he has lived there, and all three closings had occurred within the last 11 months.
Metcalfe Wolff Stuart & Williams consultant Michele Lynch represented the developer. She did not dispute the flooding problems in the area, but did say that they called for a regional solution. She said that the developer was doing what it could by detaining more water than called for under code.
“Quite frankly, our development can’t solve that problem,” said Lynch. “The flooding problems are very serious, and we have never made light of those.”
Lynch also urged the city to speed up a study of the flooding in the area.
Watershed Protection Department Assistant Director José Guerrero said the department had completed its study of the Gaines Creek tributary — and identified 40 that were under flood risk. He said although the study had not been sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the department was moving forward with studying engineering solutions for the area. He said the flooding in that part of town was a high priority and that a lot of the infrastructure in the area needed retrofitting.
Though the tract is eligible for grandfathering, the current proposal would develop the land under more recent regulations and with less impervious cover. It would also comply with the Save Our Springs, Heritage Tree, and Commercial Landscape ordinances, and more water detention than would otherwise be required. Lynch said that if the developer did not get the change, the current owner would “go out and do what they were allowed to do under 1985 rules.”
“We don’t think that is a better solution,” said Lynch.
Caroline Parker, founder and former president of Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods and former Planning Commissioner, let members know that she also addressed this case when it was before Council 29 years ago.
Parker said that her 1985 request for a development moratorium in Oak Hill did not gain much traction, but she was able to direct the Council’s attention toward drainage issues in the area. She explained that the area welcomed annexation by Austin at the time, as a means of protection against “all of the development that was beginning to happen.”
Parker said that, though many things had improved since 1985, flooding had recently gotten worse.
“The problem is, you’re studying. And you’ve been studying it for a long time, and we aren’t seeing any results from the study,” said Parker. “We are going to have continuing problems if we don’t get this study complete.”
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