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Zoning Commission delays Austin Oaks PUD indefinitely

Thursday, September 17, 2015 by Jack Craver

The Austin Oaks Planned Unit Development (PUD) drama will live to see many more days. But some members of the Zoning and Platting Commission are not happy about it.

“When we heard this case before, on July 7th, we were promised that there would not be another request for postponement,” said Commissioner Jolene Kiolbassa to Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Development Review Zoning Department “I’d like to know what happened and what is making you now ask for another postponement.”

“Well, what happened was the case is simply not ready,” answered Rusthoven, who explained that staff was still looking into the traffic and environmental implications of the proposed mixed-use development on the southwest corner of MoPac Expressway and Spicewood Springs Road. The project proposes 277 residential units as well as significant commercial space for restaurants and offices.

Staff had planned to recommend that the project be postponed until the Nov. 17 meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission, but it changed its plans when the applicant, Twelve Lakes LLC, indicated it would be willing to engage in a “charrette” with neighbors. A charrette, in this case, is a collaborative land-use planning approach in which both the developer and stakeholders will participate.

Rusthoven suggested the commission postpone the project indefinitely while that process takes place. The commission ultimately followed his advice, voting 9-2 8-3 for an indefinite postponement as well as a Nov. 3 briefing with staff and those engaged in the charrette. Vice Chair Jackie Goodman and Commissioners Ann Denkler and Kiolbassa voted against the indefinite postponement.

Robert Thomas, president of the Northwest Austin Civic Association, said his organization had voted to ask for the charrette. But it was not interested in an indefinite delay, either.

Members of the other neighborhood groups also signaled support for a charrette but demanded that the initial PUD application be withdrawn as part of the deal. The idea is to explore a number of development options, rather than just a PUD.

“A charrette paid for by the developer while an active PUD application stands is an unjust, unbalanced negotiation,” said Madelon Highsmith, a member of the Allandale Neighborhood Association.

“If you’re going to have a true discussion, you should be able to talk about all of the variables from one end of the spectrum to the other,” Highsmith said. “Some discussions could be current zoning, some could be other conventional zoning designations – there are lots of ways to skin a cat.”

Steve Drenner of the Drenner Group law firm said that the applicant had decided, after discussions with the Northwest Austin Civic Association, to change course.

“Rather than push forward on a vote that staff has in front of them,” Drenner said, the applicant had determined “that we would take a timeout. And that we would go through this charrette process with the intention of coming up with something that may look different.”

Drenner did not suggest any specific potential changes to the project. Although the developer is not committed to a PUD, Drenner said, it would not withdraw the PUD application unless another clear solution came out of the charrette.

“If we did not make progress with the charrette, that would make us start all over,” he said.

Members of the commission were torn between impatience with the lack of progress on the case and a desire to make sure the charrette was given enough time to be constructive.

Goodman motioned for the case to be postponed to Nov. 17, suggesting that the commission would know by then whether the charrette was making progress.

But a number of commissioners, including Chair Gabriel Rojas and Susan Harris, a frequent foe of postponements, said it was unlikely that a project that had struggled before the city for more than a year would be ready within the coming months. They suggested postponing the project indefinitely but requiring periodic updates from staff and those engaged in the charrette. To rehear the case in November, Rojas suggested, would simply lead to another time-consuming hearing with little resolution.

Goodman’s motion failed, 4-7, with Commissioners Louisa Brinsmade, Denkler and Kiolbassa siding with the vice chair.

This post has been corrected. After initially voting in support of the indefinite postponement, Commissioner Denkler voted against the postponement.

Image courtesy of the city of Austin

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