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Explainer: The long saga of the Garza Ranch case

Monday, January 26, 2015 by Michael Kanin

Each week, the Explainer offers a closer look at stories we have been following. This week we look at the Garza Ranch.

As part of their very first for-real, no-net meeting this week, Austin City Council members are set to consider a lingering portion of what has, to date, been one of the City of Austin’s most difficult development cases. At the center of it is a piece of land known as the Garza Ranch, a 130-acre stretch of land near the intersection of South MoPac Boulevard and William Cannon Drive.

In the 1980s, Eli Garza agreed to donate and sell roughly 22 acres to TxDOT for use on the two roads. In 1992, he platted the majority of the rest of the property. That kicked off something of an epic in the annals of city policy. It’s been to court twice, resulting in two losses for the city. And as the various segments of the former Garza Ranch move through city channels on their way toward development, they do so under an implicit threat from the legislature — one that some fear could end deeper environmental regulation granted to Austin via the city’s Save Our Springs ordinance.

City of Austin Planning Manager Jerry Rusthoven described the discussion surrounding the most recent facet of the Garza Ranch to the Planning Commission on Dec. 9 of last year. “I was … involved in some rather intensive negotiations both at the Capitol and here at City Hall for a development agreement that removed any ambiguity about what is allowed on the property,” Rusthoven said. “There was a lot of horse-trading going back and forth between the environmental officer and city staff and the applicant. We came to an agreement, which the City Council then approved.”

However, the most recent Council also left open the issue of how many car trips would be allowed on the site in question. Rusthoven continued: “At the time that we were doing that agreement, it was openly discussed that we would be coming back later to address the traffic issues. There was an attempt by the applicant to try to incorporate the traffic issues into the agreement. But it was decided that we didn’t have the information that we needed — in other words, we didn’t have the (traffic impact analysis) — and we weren’t going to agree to anything with regard to traffic. We were strictly dealing with the environmental issues.”

It’s not exactly the sort of training-wheels mission that some feel this brand-new Council is ready to ride out. Indeed, zoning in general can be hard to follow, dry and esoteric; applied in any kind of half-informed way, it can easily lead to a court battle in a state not known for putting civic interests above personal property rights.

Still, before we get all blue in the face, we’ll remember that this latest vote is over how many trips — that is, the rough estimate of car traffic — will be allowed. It’s a ruling that will no doubt impact the type of project that is constructed (more trips theoretically equal more intense usage, i.e. bigger buildings) on the roughly 30 acres that will go in front of Council on Thursday. It does so despite initial reports that the case would be postponed — an idea Garza reps initially had no objections to — until mid-February. Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who represents the district covered by Thursday’s hearing, has indicated her desire to move forward with a vote.

In any case, we felt it might be useful to engage in a brief history of the tract and its wind through city process. The information below comes courtesy of Garza reps, a representative of the environmental community, news coverage and court documents. Enjoy.

The Garza platting coincided with a citizen-led push to reconsider Austin’s environmental protections. What eventually became law in 1992 is known as the Save Our Springs ordinance. According to the city, those rules decrease the amount of impermeable surface allowed per project. In a look-back piece written in 2012 (on the occasion of the ordinance’s 20th anniversary), the Statesman‘s Asher Price summed the legislation: “[It] was designed to limit development above the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer to protect the area’s water quality and endangered species. Its passage stood as a watershed moment in the political formation of the Austin environmental movement. Critics at the time fretted that it would dampen economic growth. Supporters envisioned it as a way to preserve the water quality of the iconic Barton Springs Pool as well as, ineffably, Austin’s way of life.”

The timing of the SOS ordinance, as well as one of its immediate predecessors, and the filing of the plat left some questions regarding under which rules the Garza property would be allowed to be developed. Though Garza reps filed before the Save Our Springs ordinance passed into law, the city eventually attempted to apply the rules to the property.

It lost in court. According to the appellate ruling: “The City of Austin (“City”) … refused to allow development to proceed under the terms set out in the final and approved subdivision plat. The City disputed the validity of one of the notes contained in the plat, which would have allowed up to seventy percent impervious cover under certain circumstances. Garza sought and obtained a judicial declaration that development could proceed pursuant to the subdivision plat notes. In finding in Garza’s favor, the trial court upheld the validity of the disputed plat note on various equitable and legal grounds.”

“Because we agree with the trial court’s conclusions of law, we affirm,” reads the appeal.

The ruling allowed the Garza family to complete one set of real estate transactions, but left about 35 acres still in limbo. Those acres were zoned in 2007 as GR-MU, or, in the parlance of CoA zoning, Community Commercial Mixed Use.

And this brings us back to the present day. As Rusthoven said, Council members, with the Lege looking on, settled the impervious cover issue for this chunk of the site in 2013. That leaves the trips issue.

Garza reps argue that Council called for an interim number of 6,000 trips for the items in question, 2,000 each per site. Environmental advocates argue that Council intended to allow 2,000 for the whole package. Either way, Garza reps are back to argue for 16,000 trips.

Advocates from the environmental community have battled the Garza projects from the very beginning. Their concerns — some the same that led to stricter impervious cover regulation brought on by the Save Our Springs ordinance in the first place — point to various sensitive environmental features in and around the area, including ones that they argue contribute to the recharge of the Edwards Aquifer. They worry that overly intense development could increase the likelihood of damage to these features.

It’s a tough spot for Council, to be sure — one that is fraught with legal and legislative implications. A wrong move during a session in which the sitting governor has already signaled a concern over local restrictions could bring legislation that would threaten wider regulatory powers currently enjoyed by the City of Austin.

Tune in Thursday to see what happens.

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