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Environmental Commission schedules special meeting on Easton Park

Wednesday, March 8, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

After two hours of debating the urgency of cut and fill variances requested for a residential development in the controversial Pilot Knob planned unit development, the Environmental Commission voted to postpone action until a special called meeting no later than March 15.

The item regarding the Easton Park planned community was almost not heard at all Wednesday night. Commissioner Mary Ann Neely announced before staff’s presentation that she would be making a motion to send the item to the development and water quality committees so that the applicant and staff, who did not recommend the application, could have more time to find a compromise. Commissioner Pam Thompson seconded.

Attorney Richard Suttle, representing the applicant, pleaded for the commission to hear the item immediately because the commission’s next meeting would not be until April. “We’re charged with creating affordable housing, and we want to keep moving,” he said at the meeting.

Neely’s motion failed, and staff and the applicant made their cases. Chuck Lesniak with the Watershed Protection Department said that staff’s main concern was the unprecedented nature of the request.

The Easton Park community seeks to build 1,500 apartments (350 below 80 percent of the medium family income) and 6,500 single-family homes (650 below $200,000). Suttle said the variances extending cut and fill maximums above 8 feet each will allow developer Brookfield Residential to establish a 2 percent grade across the tract, facilitating proper drainage and ensuring slab and street stability. Suttle even set up a miniature diagram for the commissioners, complete with putty representing the east side’s high plasticity soil and tiny toy houses to demonstrate how the shrink-swell of the clay would cause the slabs to shift.

Without those variances, Suttle said, the project’s affordability commitment would no longer be feasible.

Lesniak said that he could not recall anyone ever requesting cut and fill variances to maintain foundation integrity. “This is not about drainage,” he said.

Reviewer Pamela Abee-Taulli said that staff understood that some fill was necessary to handle drainage, although she had requested from the developer’s engineers what the minimum fill would be for the project to work and they did not supply that information.

As for the cut, Abee-Taulli said, staff was not convinced that the variance was necessary.

Commissioner Andrew Creel argued that the need for affordable housing outweighed staff’s concerns. “This development is so desperately needed; it was needed 10 years ago,” he said. “I’m really hesitant to delay this any longer.”

“I personally want the homes to be built in a timely fashion,” Thompson responded, “but I don’t see the point of rushing if we’re going to create a catastrophic sort of situation.”

Neely made the same motion to postpone, once again seconded by Thompson. With only six commissioners present, she did not think a proper decision could be made. “Tonight we’re giving up our role of saying yes or no,” she said.

Commissioner Hank Smith made a friendly amendment for the subcommittees to meet by the end of next week, and then for a special called meeting to take place by March 15. The commission passed the motion unanimously. Commissioners Marisa Perales, Peggy Maceo, Linda Guerrero and Michael Moya were absent.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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