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Wednesday, December 20, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Valid petition helps broker compromise in Montopolis rezone

The Planning Commission recommended to limit the units for a Montopolis condominium project proposed in a rezoning request at its Dec. 12 meeting, largely in response to strong opposition from the neighborhood.

“I think this is a testament to you all and your neighborhood,” Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said at the meeting. “I think any other group, likely we would have approved this on consent, probably little discussion.”

The commission had heard the case originally at its Nov. 14 meeting. The application to change the zoning for the vacant lot at 2404 Thrasher Lane from General Commercial Services (CS) to Urban Family Residence (SF-5) had almost been recommended for denial, but a substitute motion had been made to postpone for a month in hopes that the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and owner Vahonia Realty could reach a compromise in the interim.

That did not happen. Fred McGhee, who lives next door to the property in question, said at the Dec. 12 meeting that single-family homes were the only acceptable option in order for the development to stay consistent with the family-friendly character of the area. On the other side, Jim Wittliff, representing the owner, said that the only way the development could be economically feasible would be to have three condominiums with three units each. The units proposed were also three-bedroom.

The lot resides on the boundary between a single-family neighborhood and a commercial area. Wittliff argued that developing condominiums to transition between those intensities was right out of an urban planning handbook.

There are housing products other than single-family homes in the vicinity of the property, prompting Commissioner Conor Kenny to question why the original request was unreasonable. Staff will typically pull a zoning case for discussion if there is neighborhood opposition, but in this case, the Montopolis Neighborhood Association had submitted a valid petition. If 20 percent or more of landowners within 200 feet of a property oppose a rezoning, a supermajority (or nine members) of Council must approve the rezoning for it to take effect.

Speaking against the proposed rezoning of the historic Montopolis Negro School property in September, Montopolis Neighborhood Contact Team President Susana Almanza, McGhee and other residents had asserted that they would stand between the building and the bulldozers if it came to that.

Regardless of present opposition, multiple commissioners acknowledged that they felt compelled to downzone the property in some way. Chair Stephen Oliver said that the historical legacy of East Austin zoning had made the decision harder than it should have been. “We’re arguing over a downzoning in many ways, which is crazy,” he said, “but that’s the reality of downzoning at the end of a long, long street. It’s just plain silly planning.”

The possible implementation of the CodeNEXT map next year added to the urgency of downzoning sooner than later. According to Draft 2 of the Land Development Code rewrite, commercial zoning will automatically include residential uses, meaning that this property could potentially develop dozens of units on the property with CodeNEXT zoning. “If I were you Dr. McGhee,” Zaragoza said, “I would agree to what is being proposed today looking at what might be coming down the pipe.”

The commission settled on a motion to recommend the original zoning requested but to limit the number of units to eight and to restrict the structures to double condominiums, instead of triples, with 10 feet of separation between each. Commissioner Trinity White made a friendly amendment to maintain pedestrian access to Carson Ridge. The motion passed 9-3, with Kenny and commissioners Greg Anderson and Jeff Thompson dissenting.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Montopolis: An East Austin neighborhood bounded by Grove Street to the west, Texas State Highway 71 to the south and the Southeast Austin neighborhood and U.S. Route 183 to the east. It is located in District 3.

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