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Council dilemma: Make growth pay for itself?

Wednesday, March 2, 2016 by Jo Clifton

When City Council takes up the question of whether to reconsider the zoning case for the Pilot Knob/Brookfield planned unit development on Thursday, it will be threading its way through two competing policies as well as zoning laws. Those competing policies can generally be labeled “making growth pay for itself” and “helping solve the affordable housing crisis through cost-shifting.”

Council members Ellen Troxclair, Leslie Pool, Ora Houston and Don Zimmerman sponsored the resolution to reconsider Council’s Dec. 17 vote to grant PUD zoning to Pilot Knob/Brookfield and redirect capital recovery fees from both the water utility and the Development Services Department to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. During Tuesday’s work session, they continued to argue that under such an agreement, their constituents would be burdened by higher water bills to help people living outside the city.

Houston said, “We’ve been talking about cost-shifting and moving funds to subsidize housing, but I want to remind my colleagues that from the beginning of time to 2015, the burden of the cost has been on the residents who have lived here for a long time to pay for growth. So I don’t see that as any different than I see what we’re trying to do now. The cost has been shifted on the backs of the homeowners who live here because the cost of service is not accurately noted – so I don’t see that as cost-shifting.”

Pool said homeowners around the city and in her District 7 all face rising home values and, as a result, rising taxes. Although it may help people who live in the Pilot Knob/Brookfield development in the future, diverting water utility money raises the cost of living for everyone else. She also questioned whether future residents of Pilot Knob would be from Austin or moving here from somewhere else.

Council Member Delia Garza, who championed the PUD and affordable housing deal along with Mayor Steve Adler, said she had anecdotal evidence that people moving into Pilot Knob would be from Austin. She said she had received numerous phone calls from Austinites about the possibility of living there and no calls from people outside Austin.

Council also got some new information Tuesday on the estimated cost to water and wastewater customers for redirecting money from capital recovery fees to the affordable housing trust fund. Previous estimates put that number at $80 million to $100 million over 20 to 30 years. But Austin Water Assistant Director David Anders put the number at closer to $51.5 million. That amount does not include any fee waivers from the Development Services Department.

Anders said the impact on the monthly average utility bill would be $.64 per month for a 30-year buildout and $.96 per month for a 20-year buildout. This impact would likely happen over a five- to seven-year period as Brookfield began to build homes and the impact of the fee waivers increased, he said.

In addition to their arguments among themselves, Council members must consider what to do about the lawsuit filed by civic activist Brian Rodgers alleging that Council violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it voted on the PUD in December. Through his attorney, Bill Aleshire, Rodgers has offered to settle the lawsuit if Council votes to rescind its action or to sign a final judgment declaring the Council action void. If it fails to do either, the lawsuit will move forward.

If Council votes to rescind its action or declare the action void, under state law it will have to initiate a new zoning case for Pilot Knob. That would mean the developer would have to go through a new zoning case and hold public hearings at both the Planning Commission and Council.

As the Austin Monitor first reported in January, a majority of Council members did not understand how much money would be diverted from the two departments into the affordable housing trust fund when they voted.

The fees will be put into the trust fund to fund 650 affordable housing units at the development, to be called Easton Park. The PUD is within five Pilot Knob municipal utility districts, which will be fully annexed into the city “no later than December 31, 2047 or possibly earlier if the MUD debt is paid off and the city chooses to annex” the area.

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