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Limits of land use code exposed in unique zoning case

Tuesday, August 29, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

An application for commercial zoning at the corner of a North Austin neighborhood elicited a tiresome recommendation from the Zoning and Platting Commission at its Aug. 15 meeting. Commissioners had to go item by item through a list of zoning district uses, almost as if they were crafting a new zone, before signing off on the request.

“Sitting up here and debating the different uses in (a) zoning district is why we need CodeNEXT so badly,” Vice Chair Jim Duncan said at the meeting. “That shouldn’t be our job.”

The property at 6610 McNeil Drive/12602 Blackfoot Trail has never fit neatly into the city’s code. It sits at an entrance to the Indian Oaks neighborhood, where the part of the building facing McNeil has been used for businesses, and the rest of the building facing inside the neighborhood was built as a single-family home, although it no longer serves that purpose.

Prior to the city’s annexation of the land decades ago, owner Abraham Birgani used the building as a commercial structure. After the area was zoned for single-family residence, the Code Department found the property to be in violation of the zoning, which prompted a rezoning request in 1997 that culminated in the business front of the lot being zoned neighborhood commercial and the back end remaining single family.

Birgani said at the meeting that he has been subjected to unfair prejudice from the city, pointing to the other commercial businesses on McNeil. Duncan disagreed that there was commercial uniformity on the street, which he considered to be an example of some of the city’s worst planning and zoning practice. “(McNeil) makes no sense whatsoever,” he said.

Still Birgani, who said he invested his life savings in the property, pleaded with the commission to grant higher zoning, claiming that he has lost investment since the city rezoned it. “I’m here to regain (what I lost),” he said. “I’m not here to go back and lose more.”

Case manager Sherri Sirwaitis, who also happens to be the planner who worked on the CodeNEXT mapping in the area where the property is located, revealed that in the current draft 6610 McNeil Drive/12602 Blackfoot Trail was zoned “Low-Medium Density Residential,” which is essentially the equivalent of the existing zoning.

In fact, the whole area surrounding the property according to the first CodeNEXT map will remain pretty much the same. The Zoning and Platting Commission has objected in its previous letters of recommendation to staff and consultants that the urban core was receiving the most attention from CodeNEXT whereas the two-thirds of the city without neighborhood plans were being left out. Sirwaitis, however, hinted to the commission that the second draft, scheduled for release Sept. 15, would show a different mapping of the area. “It is subject to change,” she said.

Duncan made a motion to recommend for the front of the lot community commercial zoning, a category higher than the current zoning but not as high as requested. Commissioner Ana Aguirre seconded. The commission had recessed before the motion was made to deliberate on the prohibited uses, and they drafted a list that included alternative financial services, automotive washing, bail bond services, congregate living, drive-in services, drop-off recycling, guidance services, outdoor entertainment, pawn shops, service stations, hospitals and medical offices.

The motion passed unanimously. Commissioners Dustin Breithaupt, Bruce Evans, Stephanie Trinh and Sunil Lavani were absent.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

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