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Zoning and Platting Commission debates its role in deciding reasonable use

Thursday, April 6, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Opposing zoning philosophies came to a head at Tuesday night’s Zoning and Platting Commission meeting, resulting in a split vote over a conditional overlay removal request for a planned gas station project in Northeast Austin.

Last year, City Council approved commercial mixed-use conditional overlay zoning for the property at 13007 Cantarra Drive. Agent Alice Glasco, representing owner Unity Five Investment LLC, explained that the conditional overlay currently permitted only 2,000 trips per day, which would limit the number of fuel stations at the proposed Food Mart to four.

“By conducting a traffic impact analysis,” Glasco said, “it would allow us to have four more stations.”

Case manager Sheri Sirwaitis said that staff recommended the request because the traffic impact analysis had been approved. Scott James with the Development Services Department said that staff concluded the gas station would not significantly impact traffic on Howard Lane.

Reading from the transcript of the Council meeting when the zoning case was originally heard, Commissioner Betsy Greenberg quoted Glasco’s promises of amenity services to be offered at the site, painting it as a place where residents could “go and get a cup of coffee and drop off your laundry, or get your nails done, or get your hair done.”

“There’s five gas stations within 2 miles (of the site),” Greenberg said. “There’s no real amenities there for all the residents there.”

Resident Peggy Henderson spoke in opposition to the request, saying that her neighbors had been hoping for more of a community grocery store like the general store on Harris Branch Parkway.

Glasco responded that the Food Mart would be a convenience store in addition to a gas station and would provide fresh food and other amenities. She added that there would be opportunities for other services to be incorporated on-site in the next phase of development.

Greenberg did not find her explanation convincing and moved to deny the request, seconded by Chair Jolene Kiolbassa.

“The reality is that the majority of sales at gas stations are alcohol and tobacco products,” Greenberg said. “The removal of the conditional zoning would benefit the developer and nobody else.”

Kiolbassa agreed and said that she would rather see a service that promoted walkability for the single-family districts nearby.

Coming at the case from a more laissez-faire perspective, Commissioner Bruce Evans made a substitute motion to approve staff recommendation, arguing that it was the developer’s responsibility to determine how they would use the site. “We are not up here to tell people what they should do with their property,” he said.

Commissioner Sunil Lavani seconded the motion, but attempted to sidestep the debate on the commission’s role in dictating reasonable site uses. “I think this zoning case is coming down to an additional four gas pumps,” he said. “When you have just four pumps, it creates a bottleneck issue.”

The substitute motion failed to pass on a vote of 5-4-1, with Kiolbassa, accompanied by commissioners Greenberg, David King and Yvette Flores, dissenting, and Commissioner Ann Denkler abstaining. The case will proceed to Council without a recommendation.

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