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Monday, February 5, 2018 by Jack Craver

Another postponement for Champion case

City Council decided Thursday that a legal and political battle surrounding the Champion tract in Northwest Austin that has spanned two decades will be extended yet another two weeks.

Council voted 7-4 to postpone action on an amendment to a settlement agreement from over 20 years ago that would allow a developer to build a major multifamily housing development.

Council voted in November 2016 to approve the same measure. However, a judge ruled in September 2017, in response to a lawsuit brought by a group opposed to the development, that the vote was invalid because city staff did not properly post the item, in violation of the state open meetings law.

In remarks to Council, Mark Stevenson, whose firm, Slate Real Estate Partners, purchased the property with the intent to develop it, urged Council to stand by the decision it made in 2016. The only reason it has an opportunity to change its mind, he noted, was due to a mistake made by the city.

“We can’t believe we’re in this predicament,” he said, noting that his firm had already spent more than $2 million preparing plans for the development since Council’s prior approval.

He also warned the city that it would be on the hook for millions in damages if it blocks a deal that it had previously approved.

As they have in past hearings involving the development, neighbors showed up to oppose the new zoning entitlements, which they argue will damage the environmentally sensitive Hill Country area and bring an influx of traffic that existing roads aren’t equipped to deal with.

Opponents repeatedly referenced a January recommendation by the Environmental Commission, which voted 7-2 that the proposed amendment was “not necessarily environmentally superior” to a development that would be allowed under the 1996 settlement.

“Demonstrate respect for our natural resources and your Environmental Commission’s thoughtful consideration,” said Carol Lee, who lives near the tract.

Those warnings stood in contrast to a presentation given by Chuck Lesniak, head of the city Watershed Protection Department, who said that the new amendment would impact the environment less than if the 1996 agreement conditions were maintained. Among other things, he said, fewer trees would be cut down and a smaller portion of the parcel could be developed.

Council Member Alison Alter, in whose district the tract is located, complained that the department had not provided the information until the night before. Council members and neighbors had not had much opportunity to review the findings.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who was not on Council when the amendment was approved in 2016, said he would support approving it again. The city might be putting itself at a major legal risk by reversing its decision, he said.

“I am concerned about what that might mean for the city and the taxpayers,” he said.

The threat of a lawsuit also led Mayor Steve Adler to speak in support of approving the amendment, although he said it was a hard decision he had come to after hours of deliberation and watching video of the Environmental Commission meeting multiple times. In the end, Adler said he agreed with the city Watershed Protection Department that the amendment would provide an environmentally superior outcome.

Council Member Ann Kitchen insisted that a better deal could be negotiated.

“Now, I know no one wants more discussion, but I also know that I’m not comfortable with what’s on the table. It’s just not good enough,” she said.

Council Member Leslie Pool, noting the “dump of information” from the department, suggested a postponement to Feb. 15.

Despite Stevenson’s objection, Council voted to postpone. Flannigan and Council members Greg Casar, Pio Renteria and Delia Garza voted against.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who typically votes in favor of developments, demurred when asked whether she was inclined to support the amendment on Feb. 15.

“I guess we’ll see in two weeks,” she said.

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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.

Watershed Protection Department: The city's Watershed Protection Department works to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and water pollution in the city. The department is mostly funded by the city's drainage fee.

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