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ZAP chair hopes to avoid more PUD postponements

Monday, December 7, 2015 by Jack Craver

Gabriel Rojas, the chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, told colleagues at the commission’s meeting last week that he hoped the discussion over the Grove at Shoal Creek Planned Unit Development – a controversial proposal for a mixed-use development at the intersection of 45th Street and Bull Creek Road – would not take as long as the debate over the Austin Oaks PUD, a similar project that has now dragged on for a year-and-a-half.

Unfortunately, city staff was not yet prepared to make a recommendation on the project, and the commission unanimously granted staff’s request to indefinitely postpone the matter.

In an attempt to prevent any further delays, Rojas asked colleagues whether they would agree to immediately take up the project and debate it on its merits as soon as staff comes back to the committee with a recommendation. The committee needs to rein in its practice of granting postponements to developers as well as to those opposed to projects, he suggested.

“I just don’t want to get into the postponement game too much,” he said. “What I’m suggesting is once it’s fully begged, we don’t entertain excessive postponements for any reason.”

Rojas’ comments echo complaints that other former and current members of land-use commissions have made about postponements in recent months.

At a recent briefing held for current members of the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission, former Planning Commissioner Dave Sullivan urged the commissioners to consider the cost of postponements on development – and therefore on housing – in Austin.

And at a Zoning and Platting Commission meeting in September, Commissioner Susan Harris, a consistent skeptic of postponements, expressed puzzlement that staff had requested a delay – on behalf of absent neighbors – for a project that the commission was required by law to approve. Rojas agreed that the postponement didn’t make sense, and the commission voted to approve the project. However, two members of the commission with ties to neighborhood groups said they didn’t like the idea of approving a project without the input of the neighbors, even if their concerns wouldn’t be enough to block the project.

The familiar divide between commissioners aligned with neighborhood groups and those who are friendlier to development emerged in response to Rojas’ most recent call for speedier considerations of projects.

“As much as I don’t like the ‘postponement game,’ as you call it, I’d prefer just to make the decision (on whether to postpone) when we see the case,” said Commissioner Jolene Kiolbassa. “I just don’t want to do anything predictive here and say once we have the staff recommendation that we’re going to vote on it or do something.”

She later told the Austin Monitor that it’s impossible to anticipate whether something will come up that will change how the commission views a project. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, citing the developers for the Austin Oaks PUD, who recently changed their legal representation after agreeing to engage in a charrette with neighborhood groups.

Seeing that his idea was getting some pushback, Rojas dropped the discussion. But he told the Monitor afterward that he hopes the commission will be sensitive to the costs associated with postponements, particularly in regard to projects that have already been subjected to as lengthy a review as the Grove at Shoal Creek.

“There are many different consultants on any given project,” he said. “Two weeks (of delay) itself is probably $5-$10,000 per person. That drives up the cost of development. We’ve been very liberal with postponements in the past, and I think there has been enough of a time frame for people to come to the table and talk things out.”

Photo by Seanpanderson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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