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Movement at ZAP to replace chair

Thursday, April 7, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Gabriel Rojas, chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, started Tuesday night’s ZAP meeting with an apology. Referring back to the March 15 meeting of the commission, during which action on the Austin Oaks planned unit development was postponed indefinitely without communication from all the citizens who had signed up to speak on the subject, Rojas said, “I received some emails alleging impropriety on my part, and I apologize if it seemed that way.”

Rojas said he wanted to hear about how the design charrette on the PUD had turned out. “I didn’t understand some of the nuances of both sides not feeling heard,” he said, then went on to explain that once the commission realized that three of the four people he had allowed to speak were all in favor of postponement and only one was against, two more people were added. So, it all turned out fine, he said.

However, three speakers who showed up this week for citizens communications before the commission did not think everything was fine. Not only did they complain about the process at the ZAP, but they complained about the design charrette for the development.

Dan Germain, who attended the March 15 meeting, said, “I’m here to express my deep concern over the process that took place at the last meeting,” where he said commission rules were not followed. “Many of us came down early,” he said – which involved fighting the traffic generated by South by Southwest as well as spring break, he noted – and they signed up to speak believing that they would have a chance to do so. However, that was not the case.

Germain said there were three names on the sheet of people who were in favor of the postponement and “the whole rest of the sheet was full” of names of people who were opposed. “Instead of calling on a balanced group, you called on the names of people who had made private arrangements with you,” he said, addressing Rojas. Germain called that action an example of the “deep corruption” of the process.

Tela Mange did not speak at Tuesday’s meeting but complained to Rojas in an email sent March 27 and obtained by the Austin Monitor. She said she had attended the March 15 meeting and was “deeply surprised to find that the procedure for speaking before the commission had changed and that we should have emailed you in advance of the meeting if we wanted to share our concerns about continuing the (Austin Oaks) application process.”

Rojas responded to her, “I must assure you my intentions were pure and (I) offered to have people speak during our discussions so that we could hear from the community while the charrette was still fresh on everyone’s minds. From the communications we were receiving it felt like we needed to hear directly from those involved. As volunteers with families and jobs we do not have much bandwidth left to know what someone will say before they brief us or on what side of any given issue they will fall.

“Once we became aware that speakers were there both to support the neighborhood led charrette process and also there to question the process, we quickly moved to allow three speakers from each side of the issue so that an equivalent amount of time was given to both perspectives.”

Mange said in another email, “Your intentions may have been pure but the video of the zoning and planning commission (sic) meeting speaks for itself. It is plain from the video that you were deliberately excluding the opposition from speaking and that it was only after Commissioner (Jackie) Goodman prodded you to allow the opposition to speak that you actually did so.”

Later in the meeting, when the question of electing officers for the coming year came up, Rojas called for nominations. Instead, Goodman gave a speech about how officers should be rotated so that people from different parts of the community could serve in those positions.

Goodman noted that her friend, Betty Baker, had served as chair of the ZAP for many years. Everyone admired and respected Baker, and there was no problem with her continued service in that position, she said. However, because the city now has a 10-1 system of representation, she said, she thought the commission should consider rotating those positions.

Goodman, a former City Council member, is vice chair of the commission. She did not make any negative comments about Rojas.

Goodman noted that two members of the commission were not in attendance, and she said she thought it would be a good idea to wait until the next meeting for the vote.

Rojas did not object to the postponement but seemed unready to give up his position as chair. “I’m willing to entertain a motion for postponement,” he said. “I do agree that 15 years might have been a little bit long for prior leadership.” He noted that he had served on the prior ZAP and was pleasantly surprised when Council Member Greg Casar appointed him to continue.

Rojas said he just wants to continue as chair for the coming year and does not intend to be chair in 2017 when the commission will be dealing with the CodeNEXT process, an extensive revision of the city’s land development code.

Andrew Rivera, the commission liaison with the Planning Department, said the Austin Oaks PUD will be scheduled to return to the ZAP within 181 days of the date it was postponed. Neighbors will be renotified at that time, he said.

Mange told Rojas in her second email, “Once the Austin Oaks application is back on your agenda, brace yourself. … My neighbors and I will be back. Although the developer seems to be counting on a war of attrition, we’re not going away.”

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