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Legal battle over Shoal Creek PUD intensifies

Wednesday, June 15, 2016 by Syeda Hasan

A few months ago, residents of Austin’s Shoal Creek neighborhood sued to stop a massive new development from going up. Now that legal battle is getting more complicated.

Twenty homeowners filed a lawsuit in district court in April over a proposed Planned Unit Development called the Grove at Shoal Creek. It alleges that the city denied residents their legal right to petition. Grayson Cox is one of the plaintiffs in the case. He said residents petitioned against zoning changes for the project, but the city ruled against them.

“The neighbors around the Grove PUD zoning case have filed a valid petition,” Cox said. “The city has verified that it meets all the requirements to be a valid petition, but the city is denying it as valid.”

Under state law, if 20 percent of the property owners within 200 feet of a site petition against a zoning change, that change needs approval by a supermajority of City Council — or nine votes — as opposed to a simple majority. In this case, no one disputes that there is a petition that has been signed by the requisite number of nearby property owners. However, the city interprets the law to apply to rezoning cases. Because the land in this case was previously owned by the state and unzoned, it is not considered a rezoning, but a zoning.

If the lawsuit is successful, it would give valid petition rights to neighbors in cases in which the land is currently unzoned. Though that doesn’t happen often, it does come up when land was previously state-owned, like in this case, or when land has been annexed by the city.

“The reason that this law was initiated was not to stop zoning changes,” Cox said. “It was to incentivize property owners and developers to work together to find reasonable compromises and solutions so that councils and commissions across the state wouldn’t turn into these battlegrounds between developers and neighbors.”

A court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 1, but now the legal dispute has gotten more complicated: The developer, ARG Bull Creek, has gotten involved with the case. Assistant City Attorney Matthew Tynan confirmed that ARG has filed its own motion, though he said he could not comment on how that may impact the city.

“Essentially it was an answer, because they were listed in the plaintiff’s original petition, so it’s kind of a catchall to bring them into the case as an actual party,” Tynan said.

In an emailed statement, the developer called the lawsuit “misguided.” It wrote, “The City of Austin has consistently and correctly interpreted and implemented state law with respect to the process of zoning our property.”

The Grove project is set to go before the city’s Environmental Commission today, a step closer to being voted on by the full Council.

This story is the result of a partnership between KUT and the Austin Monitor. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr.

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