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City may grow by 2 square miles this year

Wednesday, September 16, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

When Austinites talk about the city’s rapid population growth, they are often referring to people moving into town. Land annexation also contributes, though, and City Council is wrestling with a plan that could add 2 square miles to the city and ultimately house 7,000 residents.

Council took its first step toward incorporating the land on Aug. 20 when it set public hearings on the proposed annexations for Oct. 1 and Oct. 15. Staff has mailed out notices for the hearings and will ask Council to approve the acquisitions on Nov. 5. If the measure passes, the land will become part of the city’s full-purpose jurisdiction on Dec. 15.

The conversation continued at a work session on Tuesday when Council heard a briefing on the proposed 2015 Annual Annexation Program and tackled difficult questions, such as how the annexations might impact the city budget, what service increases they might require and whether the residents of areas under consideration want to be annexed.

Virginia Collier of the Planning and Zoning Department told Council that 28 percent of the approximately 1,300 acres proposed for annexation is developed, while the rest is not. The areas include 14 homes, 2,152 platted lots, 10,384 square feet of commercial development and 6,925 square feet of planned commercial development.

Based on preliminary data from the Travis Central Appraisal District, Collier explained, the areas have an estimated taxable value of $29.4 million, which staff projects would increase to $488 million upon full build-out, based on development plans and market values.

As far as budget and service impacts, Collier said that annexing the land would not create “immediate, one-time additional costs” for the city. “These areas can be most economically served with existing and proposed infrastructure and services, or they will be provided the services and utilities through coordinated utility and capital improvement plans,” she said.

“Generally, when we run the model for annexation areas, when you take into account the expenses that the city incurs providing services to areas, the offset against revenues with taxes is normally neutral,” Collier later added.

Residents of the city’s full-purpose jurisdiction who receive full municipal services – including police, fire and emergency medical services – are subject to the city’s regulations and taxing authority and are eligible to vote in city elections and run for office.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair probed into the potential impact that the annexations could have on the city’s public safety metrics, such as the average response time for police, ambulances and firetrucks.

“It doesn’t sound like there’s specific benchmarks or criteria that trigger additional public safety resources – you just evaluate each on a case-by-case basis,” Troxclair said.

Collier responded. “State law requires certain things be provided, and public safety is included in that list of services as they’re provided elsewhere in the city,” she said. “So we consult with the different service departments – the police department, the fire department – when we propose these areas and say, ‘Is this an area that you could serve?’ and they say yes or no.”

Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano commented on the relationship between annexation and funding for new fire stations to improve service metrics.

“It’s very difficult to get these funded as we do … smaller annexations because there isn’t necessarily the large demand,” Arellano said. “Yet, after a period of time, you get these smaller ones that start to add up, and so we need to be able to address those in terms of service delivery.”

Council Member Don Zimmerman, an outspoken critic of the city’s annexation practices, pressed staff on the issue with a rhetorical question. “If I had 100 percent of property owners who are opposed to the annexation … would that stop the annexation?” he asked.

The answer is no, as state law gives cities the authority to annex adjacent land, subject to certain requirements.

Earlier this year, Zimmerman expressed his support for a bill that failed in the 84th Texas Legislative session. Eliciting consternation from other Council members, the bill would have required cities to obtain voter approval from residents of areas under consideration for annexation before moving forward.

Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey responded Tuesday to some of Zimmerman’s comments.

“It’s not something that we bring to you lightly,” Guernsey said. “There’s usually actions that are taken by the property owner that would spur us – staff – to move forward in suggesting annexation. If there’s a large preliminary plan that gets approved where we see there’s a lot of houses that are going to go up or commercial development (that is) going to occur, then we would look at that area as being identified as one that we would annex.”

The 2015 program includes 323 acres of the Cantarra community and Howard subdivision; 187 acres of the Bellingham Meadows community; 174 acres adjacent to the Lost Creek Municipal Utility District; 145 acres near Johnny Morris Road and Daffan Lane; 135 acres of the Heritage Oaks subdivision at Pearson Ranch; 134 acres near Walnut Creek; 87 acres at U.S. 183A Tollway and Avery Ranch Boulevard; 81 acres near Old Lampasas Trail and Talleyran Drive; 28 acres near U.S. Highway 290 East and Blue Goose Road; and 9 acres of the Vaught Ranch community.

Collier explained that the Lost Creek Municipal Utility District is not technically part of the 2015 program but is being annexed in December as part of a previously approved strategic partnership agreement. River Place MUD and Shady Hollow MUD are slated for annexation in 2017 and 2020.

The city is currently 322.5 square miles in size, with 274.5 of those miles in the full-purpose jurisdiction and 48 in the limited-purpose jurisdiction.

Image courtesy of Google Maps.

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