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King upholds neighborhood-first attitude in environmental variances case

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Although some considered it off-topic, newly appointed Zoning and Platting Commissioner David King brought a neighborhood-centered perspective to the forefront of an environmental variances case, which the commission voted to recommend at its March 7 meeting.

King had requested the item be pulled off the consent agenda at the beginning of the meeting, apologizing that he was still learning and had some questions.

The variance requests for slope, cut and fill requirements were submitted as part of a new church project at 7604 FM 969 named Iglesia Camino Del Rey. The Environmental Commission approved staff recommendation for the project back in November, with the added conditions of improving erosion control and reducing the development footprint. The commission voted to approve staff’s recommendation with the Environmental Commission’s conditions in a vote of 8-1-1, with Interim Chair Jolene Kiolbassa dissenting and King abstaining.

“One of the reasons people had been hesitant to look at (the property) was because of the potential flooding on 969,” explained agent Phil Moncada at the meeting. “But one of the blessings, no pun intended, of a church is historically they only meet on Wednesdays and Sundays.”

Commissioner Jim Duncan applauded the project. “I can’t think of any better use for that site than a church.”

Residents of the Agave neighborhood disagreed with Duncan, emphasizing that they did not need another church in an area that in their view lacked other important services.

“In our area in East Austin, we desperately need economic and financial growth,” said Alex Befort, who lives adjacent to the site. “We already have at least five churches.”

Another resident, Tim Higgins, said that the neighborhood needed restaurants, music studios and art spaces. “We’d really love some amenities that our community could use,” he said. “We’re saturated with churches.”

Unfortunately for the neighborhood, the floodplain across the south frontage of the site significantly limits the level of development that could occur there, environmental reviewer Pamela Abee-Taulli explained. “The site is, environmentally, extremely constrained. That’s why we’re here with these variances,” she said.

Nevertheless, Agave Neighborhood Association President Erin Knox asked the commission to consider how the church would affect the nearby residents.

King shared her concern and inquired about shielding construction lights and whether the outside amphitheater would be enclosed. Moncada assured him that there would be shielding and that the amphitheater would be used sparingly.

“The agenda item tonight is to discuss environmental variances,” Commissioner Dustin Breithaupt interjected.

King disagreed and said that his line of questioning was relevant. “I’ve seen other neighborhoods have problems with these outdoor theaters,” he said.

“I just feel like we have no control over that,” Breithaupt responded. “It’s already existing. It has nothing to do with tonight’s case, and I would ask the chair to direct us to the discussion at hand.”

Before the vote, Kiolbassa announced that she would be voting against the item. “With all the environmental variances requested and some of the concerns raised by the neighbors,” she said, “I would actually like to see a project that’s more appropriate for the site.”

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