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Environmental Commission OKs Holdsworth Center PUD

Tuesday, October 10, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

At its Oct. 4 meeting, the Environmental Commission weighed the benefits of allowing the Holdsworth Center planned unit development to go forward in lieu of adhering to the current zoning for single-family residents on a 44-acre swath of undeveloped agricultural land along the shores of Lake Austin.

Andrea Bates, environmental program coordinator for the Watershed Protection Department, presented the project to the Environmental Commission, and confirmed that the development was environmentally superior to what could otherwise be developed.

Currently, the land is zoned Single-Family 2 and would accommodate about 30 homes.

The Holdsworth Center PUD, at 4907 RM 2222 Road, is the result of HEB CEO Charles Butt’s $100 million legacy gift to Texas public education and is slated to be a nonprofit retreat center “dedicated to training and leadership development for the leaders of Texas public school districts,” according to a memo. The Holdsworth Center complex will include meeting facilities, dormitories for up to 250 invitees, dining and recreational facilities, administrative offices and one permanent residence for Holdsworth Center staff. There will also be a parking lot with 300 parking spaces and three boat docks.

Compared to current watershed regulations, according to staff, the plan for the education center reduces the environmental footprint more so than if the land was developed according to its current single-family zoning. In fact, Bates noted that besides superior water quality controls, restoration of the Critical Water Quality Zone, three-star Austin Energy Green Building rating, dark sky lighting techniques and the preservation of 100 percent of the heritage trees on-site, “The PUD is also providing about 4 additional acres of land that would otherwise be developable,” she said.

This additional undeveloped space makes the amount of impervious cover 2 percentage points lower than the maximum amount allowed under current regulation, said Bates.

However, these improvements on the current regulations did not come about without any contentious discussion.

“Over the past nine months we’ve worked through a lot of issues with staff,” said David Armbrust, who is the attorney representing the applicant on this project. “They’re sometimes difficult but very responsible and it’s always a pleasure to work with them.”

One of those issues is a pedestrian path that the developer intended to span the front of the property, which it has decided will not be built. “But we will give the city an easement to build the trail when it connects to something in the future,” said Armbrust. He said that the surrounding neighborhood groups are in favor of the construction of this PUD.

Bernie Schiff, the treasurer of the Cliffs Over Lake Austin Homeowners Association, spoke in favor of the zoning change.

“We wanted to indicate that we’re in favor of building the property of the PUD,” he said. “We also disagreed with the proposed hike and bike trail and we’re very happy to hear about the easement.”

After the initial presentation, Chair Marisa Perales said, “I don’t think there’s much of a question of the environmental superiority.”

Commissioner Linda Guerrero, however, expressed some apprehension about proposed docks. While she showed concern for maintaining a minimum disturbance of the shoreline, she also said, “I understand the environmental piece we’re looking at, but we also have to look at navigation issues.”

Commissioner Wendy Gordon explained that at the currently proposed lengths of 60 feet, 45 feet and 45 feet, “If someone were hugging the shoreline there, (they) would crash into it.”

Liz Johnston, environmental program coordinator for the Watershed Protection Department, explained that although the docks are not yet fully designed out, nor has a specific site been selected, the intended dock extension is not unusual. She has seen a number of docks extend past 30 feet due to the depth in certain parts of the lake that prevents larger boats from docking close to the shoreline. All the docks at the proposed PUD, she said, would be lit to prevent accidents.

Guerrero said that not only was she concerned about the lack of specificity in dock design, but that staff should be concerned as well.

Ben Scott, director of real estate for HEB, explained, “We’re threading the needle a little bit with those docks.” As they want to incite the least disturbance possible – there will be no shoreline modifications – and they want to be able to dock and chauffeur large parties of attendees, he explained that the location selection for each dock involves careful consideration.

“If getting those two-day docks to 30 feet (helps), then that’s something we are willing to do,” he said. In response to Guerrero’s concerns about making the Austin Police Department aware of the elongated docks, he also confirmed that the applicant will review the dock design with the department before this project goes to City Council.

Commissioner Hank Smith made a motion to recommend the plan with staff conditions and the Environmental Commission’s recommendations. The motion was approved unanimously.

Photo of the property courtesy of the city of Austin.

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