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Rezoning applicant loses rematch with neighborhood

Tuesday, September 12, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

A property owner expected different results at last Tuesday’s Zoning and Platting Commission meeting when making the same rezoning application for a Northwest Austin property. The zoning had been previously cut down by City Council, and the commission decided to stick with Council’s prior ruling for its new recommendation.

“I feel like you didn’t get what you wanted from the one parent, and so now you come back and ask the other,” Commissioner Betsy Greenberg said. “It’s disrespectful to the Council. I think it’s most disrespectful to the people who signed that petition.”

The Richard Haberman Trust, owner of 4920 Spicewood Springs Road, had previously applied in 2014 to change the zoning from single family to limited office. A significant upzoning, the request was granted by Council in early 2015 but included a conditional overlay restricting the square footage of development to 12,000. The original amount asked for was 18,500.

Scott Taylor, the project manager representing the applicant, said that the owner had never agreed to the 12,000-square-foot limitation, which he claimed was an arbitrary number conjured up by the surrounding neighborhoods who had advocated against the rezoning before. According to his numbers, development with that area simply wasn’t profitable.

“There are economies of scale,” he said at the meeting. “At a certain scale, projects don’t work, and this scale doesn’t work.”

Neighborhood representatives disputed Taylor’s claim. Dennis Watts, president of the Spicewood Green Homeowners Association, said that around 5,000 homeowners had signed a valid petition opposing a change in the conditional overlay. Northwest Association Civic Association treasurer Joyce Statz said that she was disappointed that the neighborhood had to reassert a deal that had already been made.

“I’m concerned that zoning cases can be resurrected again and again and again,” she said.

Taylor fired back at the criticism, claiming that the opposition had to do with the self-interest of owners of adjacent office buildings. “Austin needs density in the proper places, and this is the proper place,” he said.

The waiting period between rezoning applications is 18 months, and Vice Chair Jim Duncan said that he thought for the owner to reapply at the earliest possible time was too soon. “Once you have established City Council policy on a land use issue,” he said, “I would think that would have some effect upon the staff’s subsequent recommendation.”

Case manager Sherri Sirwaitis said that the current staff recommendation was consistent with the one in the previous case.

After reviewing testimony from the 2015 Council hearing, Chair Jolene Kiolbassa said that it was evident that one of the main reasons the opposing neighborhoods and Council had agreed to the zoning change was the square footage limit. She said the fact that the case had returned “disturbs me.”

Not all the commissioners agreed. Commissioner Bruce Evans said that he saw no problem with what the property owner was asking for. “To turn down an additional $2.6 million on tax rolls for reasons that I think are not that strong is a bad decision,” he said.

Nevertheless, Greenberg made a motion to deny the request, seconded by Commissioner David King.

The motion passed 9-2, with Evans and Commissioner Stephanie Trinh dissenting.

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