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Council delves into liquor politics

Friday, September 1, 2017 by Jack Craver

A proposed liquor store in Northwest Austin still faces long odds due to intense opposition from surrounding neighbors, but it won a key procedural victory Thursday when City Council voted to give the property owner another chance to make his case in favor of the necessary zoning change.

Council voted 7-4 to rescind its previous rejection of the requested zoning change for 12611 Hymeadow Drive that took place on Aug. 10. On that day, the zoning change was rejected even though a majority of the nine members present had voted in favor of it, since code changes require six votes in favor.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, in whose district the proposed store is located, argued that it deserved another chance because a majority present had supported it and the outcome may have been different if three two members of Council weren’t absent.

However, to a number of area residents opposed to the liquor store, the move to rescind the previous result was an example of government providing special treatment to special interests. It would set a bad precedent for future zoning cases, they argued, with developers continually seeking Council to undo decisions.

“In 16 years’ experience with zoning cases, I have never seen a Council decision canceled because members were absent and one of the parties didn’t like the outcome,” said Linda Finley, an activist with the Neighborhood Association of Southwestern Williamson County.

Mayor Steve Adler said that it was a tough call, but that he did not like the idea of important decisions being the result of procedural flukes due to absences, rather than a clear expression of Council. The 10-1 Council, he reminded his colleagues, was intended to be a more direct representation of the will of the people of the city.

He didn’t want to send the message, he said, that “we’re OK with decisions being made by less than half of the city.”

Council Member Leslie Pool responded that the will of the people was best expressed by the many neighbors who had come out to oppose the liquor store in a residential area. She also argued that the agent for the property owner and Flannigan could have asked for a postponement but didn’t.

“I take exception to moving the goal posts in this case, especially since it’s a liquor store, which blows my mind,” she said.

Council Member Alison Alter concurred, wondering why “this case merits the energy and attention that it has received,” noting that she hadn’t “seen a single person supporting this item besides Council Member Flannigan.”

Flannigan disputed the notion that the liquor store had gotten a fair assessment by the people’s representatives. Council never voted against it, he said, since the majority of those present had voted in favor.

”It is even more instinctively wrong that you’re allowing the minority of those present over the majority,” he said.

Council Member Ann Kitchen agreed.

“It was a procedural issue that blocked this,” said Kitchen.

Council Member Pio Renteria suggested he was not inclined to ultimately support the liquor store, but agreed to give it another hearing.

“I told Jimmy I’m not supporting that liquor store but I’d give him the courtesy to bring it back up,” he said.

In the end, Flannigan, Adler, Renteria, Kitchen and Council members Delia Garza, Greg Casar and Ellen Troxclair voted in favor of rescinding the rejection of the zoning. Pool, Alter, Council Member Ora Houston and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo voted against.

That wasn’t the only liquor-related case Council dealt with on Thursday.

Shortly after, Council narrowly rejected an application for a zoning change to allow a liquor store at 1800 Scofield Ridge Parkway, despite its recommendation by city staff. Once again, neighbors showed up to oppose the zoning change, voicing concerns about crime. Pool, Tovo, Alter, Renteria, Kitchen and Houston voted to deny, while Adler, Casar, Garza, Flannigan and Troxclair voted against denying.

Finally, Council later voted unanimously to deny a waiver sought by Wingstop at 7112 Ed Bluestein Blvd. to a city ordinance prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages within 300 feet of a school. Flannigan contrasted his position on that matter to the two previous liquor-related cases, saying that the 300-foot buffer was a “straightforward,” consistent rule that he was happy to apply universally.

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