Friday, July 17, 2015 by Jack Craver

Neighborhood concerns too late to block Montopolis development at Planning Commission

Despite vociferous objections from a neighborhood association leader, the city of Austin’s Planning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a preliminary plan to construct a 12-home subdivision at 737 Montopolis Road.

City staff had recommended approval of the plan – which was brought forward by developer Joe Stafford, owner of Stafford Development LLC – noting that the plan was consistent with all local ordinances and state laws.

But Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and the lone speaker in opposition to the project, described the subdivision as a gentrification attempt that threatens to drive up housing prices for the predominantly low-income residents in the area.

While many in development and real estate argue that more housing will drive down costs, Almanza said that the push for high-density housing often comes at the expense of the city’s poor.

“High densification has made Austin one of the most unaffordable cities to live in,” she said. “We have to be here taking a stand against what Mr. Stafford is doing to the Montopolis neighborhood.”

Almanza also argued that the project was inconsistent with the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan, which zoned the targeted parcel of land on Montopolis Road for the lightest density single-family residences (SF-3). The units in Stafford’s plan, said Almanza, were too small to qualify for SF-3, and are instead in line with SF-4 zoning, which is designated for smaller lots. She therefore asked the commission to reduce the project from 12 to eight lots, which she said would be consistent with the neighborhood plan’s density restrictions.

However, both commissioners and city staff pointed out that the neighborhood plan in fact allowed exceptions to the base zoning for certain infill uses. Stafford’s development qualified under the “cottage use” provision, which allows for lots that are at least 2,500 square feet in a number of zones, including SF-3, that would otherwise require larger lots.

Had the Montopolis Neighborhood Association not written such an exception into its plan, Stafford’s proposed lots would have been prohibited based on the base zoning code, which mandates that lots in SF-3 zones be at least 5,750 square feet.

Commissioners told Almanza that there was little they could do to prevent the project.

“At this point, our hands end up tied,” said Commissioner James Shieh. “I would seriously recommend you re-look at your neighborhood plan, and if you don’t like it, maybe repeal it.”

Commissioner Patricia Seeger also said she empathized with Almanza’s concerns, but said she had learned from past experiences that trying to stop projects that are following all the rules is against the law.

“I’ve been down that path before,” she said. “It’s painful, but if we don’t follow state and local ordinances, we’re not doing our job.”

Almanza thanked the commissioners for the advice and suggested she would explore revision of the neighborhood plan in the future.

Stafford, who made a brief comment before Almanza and later answered a couple of short questions from commissioners, did not respond to Almanza’s criticisms of the plan’s concept. He was content to emphasize that his proposal was consistent with code.

Image courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Susana Almanza: Activist Susana Almanza is the director and founder of PODER (People Organized in the Defense of Earth and her Resources) and the president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association.

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