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Tuesday, October 31, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Light at the end of the tunnel for landowner

It’s been many years in the making, but it seems likely that Abraham Birgani, who owns a tract at the corner of McNeil Drive and Blackfoot Trail, may finally get the zoning he needs to allow him to offer commercial services as he wishes to do.

City Council voted 8-3 on first reading at its Oct. 19 meeting to grant Birgani Community Commercial Services-Mixed Use (GR-MU) zoning at 12602 Blackfoot Trail, so that he can operate a retail business, such as the medical equipment repair facility that Birgani told Council he wanted. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Leslie Pool and Alison Alter voted in opposition.

Documentation attached to the zoning case and a description from Birgani’s attorney, Michael Shulman, tell a convoluted Kafkaesque tale of an immigrant caught in the jaws of municipal planning.

Shulman told Council that his client, who originally spoke only Farsi, was building a commercial project on his land in Williamson County at the end of 1997 and “had all the permits and site plans approved by the city, including the parking lot.” Unbeknownst to Birgani, the city annexed the property, and after that it revoked the site plan, rezoned the property and red-tagged the construction.

“The city drew artificial boundary lines for the property,” Shulman said, and zoned the front portion, just 1,416 square feet, as Neighborhood Commercial (LR), and the back portion, roughly twice the size, as residential.

But because of the configuration drawn by the city and a restrictive covenant requiring any business there to shut down at noon on Saturday and not operate on Sunday at all, there was little that Birgani could do with the property, Shulman said.

Shulman asked Council to grant General Commercial Services (CS) zoning, promising no liquor sales, a particular concern of the child-focused business next door on Blackfoot Trail.

Shulman also promised that there would be no commercial access along Blackfoot Trail, a concern of neighbor Pam Roberts, who told Council she was particularly concerned about the impact a new business might have on her tiny neighborhood. “There’s only 108 houses in the HOA but that’s why this is so important to us. We’re a tight-knit place. The kids run up and down the street, go see other neighbors. … It’s an awesome little jewel that we have and it’s very different from all the access off McNeil on the other streets. … It’s a little jewel cut back there and we’d hate to have that changed.”

The street may not be the pristine place that Roberts painted in her speech, however. It does include a storage facility, but another speaker said the storage facility generates very little traffic.

Council had a lengthy discussion about whether the next-door neighbor was a preschool or a day care, because the rules for alcohol are somewhat different for those two businesses. Council members Pool, Alter, and Ann Kitchen were particularly concerned about the possibility of alcohol sales. Tovo was additionally concerned about pawnshops and some other uses she wanted to see prohibited.

Shulman promised that he and his client would work with Council regarding conditional overlays, if necessary.

Tovo, Kitchen, Alter and Pool all voted for an amendment to add conditional overlays, but their colleagues did not. Kitchen joined the majority in voting for the zoning of GR-MU.

The case will probably not come back for several weeks because staff has to come up with a definitive answer for dealing with a facility that calls itself a school but would be better protected if it called itself a day care. In addition, staff is working on documents to remove the restrictive covenant that prevents the property owner from operating during most of the weekend.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, whose district includes the neighborhood, interceded on Birgani’s behalf when some Council members wanted to postpone the case in response to neighborhood requests. After discussing whether a postponement would be appropriate, Council decided to go ahead with first reading only.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Planning and Zoning Department: Planning, preservation and design services are under the purview of this department.

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