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Pilot Knob ruling seems to have little effect on city development deal

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

In a late Friday ruling, a district judge sided with a local activist against the city of Austin, voiding a December vote taken by City Council members on the housing development Pilot Knob. Called Easton Park, the development plans to offer 1,500 apartments and 6,500 single-family homes in Southeast Travis County.

The lawsuit, brought by local activist Brian Rodgers in February, alleged that the city violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when the agenda for the December vote referred only to the item as a planned unit development (PUD) zoning case and made no mention of the diversion of tens of millions of dollars in fees from city departments into an affordable housing fund. Judge Stephen Yelenosky effectively erased that favorable zoning vote on Friday.

Although it’s as if that December vote never happened, in talking with Mayor Steve Adler, Council members and their staff, it’s unclear how, if at all, the ruling will affect the city’s deal with the developer. (Richard Suttle, the attorney for the developer, did not return requests for comment.) A spokesperson for the city said Tuesday that city attorneys had not had adequate time to review the case.

But the mayor said he understood the ruling as just a slap on the wrists of city staff.

“The ruling that came from the court said that the staff had not posted the matter correctly, which is a procedural question,” said Adler. “If we need to do it differently procedurally, then we will. But the judge did nothing to question what it was that we had done or the propriety of what we had done, and I’m encouraged by that.” (Indeed, the decision already appears to be having procedural ramifications.)

While Rodger’s suit also questioned the legality of the city’s diversion of fees, the judge wrote that he could not rule on that matter, because the violation of state law voided the vote.

Adler said that although the city could decide that Council members have to vote again, that re-vote has effectively already happened. After several Council members cried foul, saying they were not fully aware of the deal’s inner workings, Council opened a new zoning case in March. As part of that new case, Council members voted to amend the diversion of fees, opening for themselves the option that the fees, or a portion of them, could be used for other projects – not solely affordable housing.

“The only question was … if the water department did not need that much money, did the Council want the ability to be able to steer that money toward promoting housing that’s affordable in the city,” said Adler.

That measure was then sent to boards and commissions. According to one Council staffer, the measure should then come back to Council members in either December or January.

But on Tuesday, Council Member Delia Garza, one of the deal’s architects, reiterated her hope that the development fees will still be put in a coffer for affordable housing.

“I still believe we have to put a priority on affordable housing,” said Garza.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News. It has been corrected to reflect the fact that PUD stands for “planned unit development” not “public utility district.”

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