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Wednesday, September 30, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

PUD proposal could impact Grove application

Since it was announced in April, the proposed Grove at Shoal Creek Planned Unit Development has provoked a critical response from neighbors. Now, City Council is mulling over a policy change that could make it more difficult for that project’s zoning request and others like it to get approval.

The code amendments that Council will consider initiating on Thursday would require a supermajority vote to zone a property for the first time if one of the city’s land-use commissions has recommended against giving that property planned unit development, or PUD, zoning.

That procedure would be consistent with the city’s policy on requests to rezone properties as PUDs that already have zoning designations. In these cases, if the Planning Commission or the Zoning and Platting Commission recommends against PUD zoning, three-fourths of the Council – or nine members – must vote in favor of the rezoning request in order for it to move forward.

The most obvious example of a case that could be impacted by the proposed change is the Grove at Shoal Creek PUD, which would be built on a vacant, unzoned 75-acre property at the intersection of 45th Street and Bull Creek Road that was previously owned by the Texas Department of Transportation and purchased by a private developer.

Under current policy, because the property had no zoning attached to it, a developer in such a case could ultimately obtain PUD zoning approval with a simple majority vote from Council.

Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Zoning Department told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday that it’s unclear at this point whether the Grove would have to adhere to the proposed policy change, if passed, or whether it would be “grandfathered” and considered under the current policy.

Council considered setting the baseline zoning for the unzoned property in August, but postponed a decision so that it could get recommendations from the city’s boards and commissions.

So far, Rusthoven said, the case has not yet gone to any boards and commissions, though it is slated for future Zoning and Platting Commission and Environmental Commission agendas.

If Council were to pass the resolution initiating the amendments put forward by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and two sponsors, city staff would draft an ordinance that would make the proposed changes and bring that back to Council for consideration in the coming months. Council would also hold a public hearing before considering the ordinance.

Tovo explained the rationale behind her proposal at a Council work session on Tuesday. “I don’t see a policy reason for having that (policy) extend only to zoned land rather than unzoned, and that’s … what this measure would fix, to treat those parcels the same,” she said.

The policy, Tovo continued, “kind of sets a higher bar at the Council so that these land-use decisions aren’t strictly political decisions at Council, but it’s got that land-use recommendation, and to override a land use recommendation, you’ve got to have a higher bar at Council.”

After a few Council members requested assurance that the proposal would be thoroughly vetted before Council makes any code changes, Tovo said that she would consider amending her resolution to note that the proposed ordinance would go to the Planning Commission and the Council Planning and Neighborhoods Committee before reaching Council.

Council Member Greg Casar sought clarification on why Tovo felt that the additional stringency was necessary. “It seems to me that this disincentivizes PUD applications on zoned or unzoned property,” he said.

“I haven’t thought enough about it yet to know whether that’s something we want to do or not,” Casar continued. “My understanding of PUDs … is that it’s an attempt by the city to get something better than we would get in zoning, so I’m not sure whether we want to make that necessarily more difficult.”

PUD zoning allows the city to require that developers go above and beyond Land Development Code requirements on certain projects in exchange for greater density allowances and other developer benefits.

“We have a particular example in front of us,” Tovo responded without naming a specific case. “And I think what I’ve certainly heard from a large number of community members is a frustration that they don’t have the same rights and protections under the zoning code that would be available to them were the property to be (re)zoned.”

Bobby Levinski, Tovo’s policy adviser, provided some additional details to the Monitor in an e-mail on Tuesday. “The concerns were raised by neighbors to the Bull Creek property. In reviewing the issues, we realized the city code fails to address what procedures apply for unzoned properties,” he wrote. “This code change seeks to address that gap.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Planned Unit Development: A zoning classification designated by the city to allow greater flexibility for projects within its boundaries.

Planning and Zoning Department: Planning, preservation and design services are under the purview of this department.

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