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East Austin church relocation shakes up neighbors

Friday, June 26, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

East Austin’s Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church is moving, and neighbors are concerned about who might be moving in. Church supporters and people concerned about what new development could mean for their neighborhood packed City Hall on Tuesday night.

The existing zoning on the property is general office, and while the church doesn’t want to change that, it does want to lift a restrictive covenant that limits the land use to religious assembly only. The Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which has been at that location for 80 years, is in the process of moving. The church hopes that removing the covenant will help them sell the church at 1801 Pennsylvania Ave.

Planning Commissioners voted 5-3 to remove the covenant, with Chair Danette Chimenti and commissioners Jean Stevens and Nuria Zaragoza voting in opposition.

However, Stevens and Zaragoza later initiated a zoning case for the property. That case will be on the Planning Commission’s next agenda.

Chimenti also said that she would like to see a zoning change because it was clear that “something needed to happen” to allow more than one use on the property, but she was concerned that some of the civic uses allowed without the covenant “would be really horrible for the neighborhood.” She said she wanted to see more negotiation to come up with a better solution that would work for both sides.

The restrictive covenant was placed on the property in 1988, when the property was rezoned from single-family to general office in order to allow the church to expand. The Central East Austin Neighborhood Plan restricts the property to civic uses only. That restriction will remain even if the covenant is terminated.

City staff supports removal of the covenant for a couple of reasons. First, explained Planning and Zoning Department city planner Heather Chaffin, the department does not, as a rule, support limiting zoning to a single use (religious assembly). Additionally, the current level of impervious cover on the land does not comply with SF-3 zoning, so downzoning it would render the lot nonconforming. Rezoning a property out of compliance with city code is also against city policy.

Henry Gilmore spoke on behalf of the church and explained that there is a “very limited market” for church property, saying, “A church doesn’t come around looking to buy another church every day.” Gilmore told commissioners that the option of rezoning to a category more agreeable to the neighborhood isn’t appealing.

“The church is not a developer, so it’s really not equipped to make decisions about zoning. It would prefer that its purchaser do that, if that’s necessary,” said Gilmore. “It would just be guessing what zoning changes would be appropriate. All it wants to do is to be able to sell this property quickly and to increase the market so it’s not limited to one use only.”

Gilmore further explained that a future land use map change or a zoning change are both “lengthy and expensive processes” that make more sense to go through with a concrete project on the table. In contrast, said Gilmore, removing the restrictive covenant is a straightforward proposition. He noted that the future use land map (FLUM) would require future development to go through the process anyway.

“The neighborhood is protected. It is not being left unprotected here,” said Gilmore. “All that’s happening, or would happen, is that the property could be developed as a civic use and not just a church.”

Many neighbors disagreed.

Clifton Van Dyke, president of the Kealing Neighborhood Association, spoke against lifting the covenant. Van Dyke pointed out that before the church acquired the land from the city in 1968 through an urban renewal disposition, there were single-family homes on the lot. In fact, he said, the Kealing Urban Renewal Plan limited uses in the area to single-family, public school and religious assembly.

Van Dyke said the neighborhood would like to see single-family (SF-4) multifamily (MF-2) zoning on the tract in question and multifamily (MF-2) single-family (SF-4) zoning on an adjacent tract also owned by the church. These changes, he said, would greatly increase the marketability of the property while maintaining the character of the neighborhood.

Van Dyke told commissioners that because of the restrictive covenant, downzoning the property in this case would not place more restrictions on the property but rather expand the development entitlements. This position is also supported by the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN).

Lee Sherman is also a resident of the Kealing neighborhood. He pointed out that the civic use on the FLUM was designated for the Mt. Zion property out of respect and a “belief and hope that it would be there for the long-term.”

Sherman also shed more light on a 1963 urban renewal plan for the neighborhood. He said that although residents had researched it and asked city staff about it, it remains unclear whether the plan is still in effect. If it is still in effect, said Sherman, controls that limit the land use to residential, public school or religious assembly are still in effect as well. If not, he said, the plan still provides evidence of “a clear intent to preserve the area as single-family residential.”

Commissioner Brian Roark said he was “convinced” that the civic use is appropriate for the lot, with adequate protections for the neighborhood.

“While this might not be the most perfect solution, life is not perfect. I think it’s the closest thing,” said Roark.

Commissioner James Nortey said that he agreed, but couldn’t shake the unfairness of the neighborhood’s losing a protection that residents thought it had through a public restrictive covenant. With that in mind, he said he would be open to initiating a rezoning of the property.

At the time of the meeting, neither City Council members nor Mayor Steve Adler had made their appointments to the Planning Commission, and it remains unclear which commissioners will be returning. Because both Zaragoza and Stevens will be returning, they placed the rezoning initiation on the agenda for the commission’s meeting, which will take place on July 14.

This story has been corrected.

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