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Commission approves Cebolla Creek plan

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

In spite of concerns about potential flooding, the Zoning and Platting Commission approved a preliminary plan July 7 for the proposed Cebolla Creek subdivision near both Onion and Bear creeks.

The move came, however, after a failed motion and a tense discussion about the possible repercussions of not approving such a request when the proposed development complies with the city’s Land Development Code.

“In subdivision (cases), we have very little discretion (over) whether to approve or disapprove,” explained Chair Gabriel Rojas. “If it meets code, it must be approved.”

Commissioner Susan Harris made the first motion for approval. “While I would love to see less density, I respect the statutory rights, as long as it’s a code-compliant plan, that it would be approved,” she said.

That motion did not carry, however. It garnered the support of only five commissioners, with Vice Chair Jackie Goodman and commissioners Thomas Weber and Jolene Kiolbassa abstaining and Secretary Louisa Brinsmade dissenting.

Attorney Richard Suttle responded carefully on behalf of applicant Royce Rippy, urging the commission to reconsider. “There are some on this commission that have some experience with what happens when a subdivision is deemed to have met code requirements and yet it doesn’t get approved, and it’s a very unpleasant situation,” he said.

“The applicant is put in this horrible position of having to go another route. It’s very expensive; it’s very mean and nasty,” Suttle added.

Goodman noted that she has been sued in the past after abstaining from a vote, though she did not name the specific case. “I’m the one who the unpleasant experience happened to,” she said.

The plan passed in the end, with seven commissioners voting in favor of a second motion for approval and Kiolbassa and Brinsmade abstaining.

Goodman explained why she did not initially cast a supporting vote. “The thing that made me abstain is the latest floods,” she said, referring to the recent Memorial Day weekend floods. “That really is an issue for me, because Austin – we still smell like a swamp to me right now.”

The site proposed for Cebolla Creek – which means “Onion Creek” in Spanish – lies in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. It is partially adjacent to Twin Creeks Road and is not subject to its zoning restrictions.

According to case manager Joe Arriaga, the roughly 71-acre plot of land would include 197 single-family lots and is compliant with city, Travis County and state regulations. The plan, he said, has staff’s recommendation.

Alexandra Vanzandt, who lives adjacent to the property, raised the eyebrows of a few commissioners during public comment when she referred to the Halloween 2013 flood. “I can tell you that when the big giant flood happened … the property that is going to be Cebolla was completely underwater, because I looked out at the water from my house,” she said.

That flood caused major damage in the lower Onion Creek area, where the city is spending up to $60 million to buy out at-risk property and relocate residents.

According to backup documents, the Cebolla site “contains 100-year floodplain; however, the applicant does not plan on building anything in the floodplain other than a street crossing.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, defines a 100-year floodplain as a piece of land that has a 1 percent chance of being underwater every year. The agency updates its floodplain maps periodically, and the city uses them to regulate development. Those maps, however, can change based on new development and other factors.

Suttle responded to these concerns. “The subdivision has been designed for the fully developed floodplain, not the FEMA floodplain, which means that we actually took into account more water coming across than is currently coming across,” he said.

“We actually went above and beyond that and said fully developed upstream conditions means there’s actually going to be more water, and we’re actually making improvements to that.”

The applicant’s engineer, John Clark of LJA Engineering, made a similar statement. “We are improving the drainage that conveys across this property, absolutely, without a doubt,” he said.

Rojas noted the technical limitations within which the city is working to regulate development. “The science may not be up to date with what’s actually on the ground,” he said.

“(The floodplain is) going to only be studied every so often … so on a watershed level, the engineers for this project aren’t looking at redefining the 100-year floodplain,” Rojas continued. “Until we have another study that FEMA signs off of, we won’t know what the new 100-year floodplain is.”

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