County residents learn zoning lesson
Tuesday, May 29, 2018 by Jo Clifton
Some Travis County homeowners have learned zoning regulations the hard way as they oppose rezoning of property across the street from their homes.
Last week, City Council voted 9-1 on first reading to approve mostly warehouse zoning, with some multifamily, on about 13 acres at the intersection of Sansom Road and Ferguson Lane in District 1.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan was opposed and Council Member Ellen Troxclair was on leave.
The property to be rezoned is within the city, but the neighborhood across the street, Walnut Place, is in Travis County. Those residents do not vote in city elections or pay city taxes.
Jerry Rusthoven, assistant director of the Planning and Zoning Department, told Council that state law says a person needs to own property on the municipal tax rolls in order to be entitled to a valid petition.
However, it seems that the city staff person in charge of the case did not understand either that the neighborhood was outside the city or that state law did not authorize them to sign a petition.
Walnut Place resident Nick Schnitzer explained that he did exactly as the staff member instructed him to do in gathering more than enough signatures for a valid petition only to learn that the county property owners did not have standing to present the petition. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo asked whether commercial property owners who are in the city would be eligible to sign a petition.
Rusthoven told her that they would be eligible but that it would be highly unusual for them to do so. Schnitzer volunteered that the commercial property owners appeared to be in favor of the zoning change.
Schnitzer said that when his family bought their house “a year and a half ago, we were buying a house knowing that it was in the county, on large single-family lots, across from a cornfield, which of course is not going to remain one forever. But when we found out the property agent was trying to get it rezoned” for warehouses, “we knew this would be trouble.”
He said that he doubts that the property owner intends to develop it. Instead, he said, “I think this is a flip job. I think they’re trying to get the most relaxed zoning they can and flip it.”
“This is just another affront to us,” said Ernie Gammage, who said he has lived in his Travis County home for the past 30 years. “We’ve been, since I have lived there, under an assault of traffic, flooding, and one of the dumps has built out just on the edge of our property, and this is just another affront to us. When we moved out there we were surrounded by cornfields, and now we’re surrounded by UPS and the post office.”
Gammage said he is personally most concerned about flooding and the very real possibility that additional impervious cover will mean that his home is flooded during heavy rains. He showed Council photos taken from his porch of a nearby creek, which he called Buttercup Branch, that looked like a mighty river after a rain event in 2007. He told Council that he and several of his neighbors live in the 100-year flood plain.
“We asked the applicant to provide us with a 110 percent detention pond. … They refused. I think it’s very reasonable … I don’t want to be flooded in my home. We’re a rural county road framed community … and the thought of having yet another pile of warehouses and all that that entails – the noise, the traffic, the light pollution – is anathema to everybody in the neighborhood.”
Attorney Michael Whellan represented the property owner and described several meetings with the neighborhood. In the beginning, he explained, the property owner was seeking Warehouse Limited Office (W/LO) for part and Single Family Residence-Large Lot (SF-1) for the rest.
However, the Zoning and Platting Commission recommended W/LO and Multifamily Residence-Limited Density (MF-1) with a conditional overlay, which the property owner was willing to accept. After that, Whellan said, conversations with the neighborhood became more complicated. He described a number of steps that the neighborhood wanted, including stormwater detention, a 4-foot berm that runs more than 400 feet along Sansom Road, and several other items.
Flannigan particularly objected to the conditional overlay, saying that the city should not be providing that to county properties. He also advised objecting neighbors that they have a way to join the city and get the protections that offers. He said they should consider contacting their legislative representatives about giving counties some authority over land use – which is unlikely unless the makeup of the Legislature changes significantly.
Tovo was interested in the housing portion of the zoning and asked Whellan whether it would be income restricted. Whellan said it would not and could not answer questions about the cost of the housing. However, he promised that the developer would do some market studies before second and third reading.
Council Member Ora Houston made the motion to grant W/LO and MF-1 zoning. At her request, the public hearing will remain open to those who have not yet spoken when the case returns for second and third reading on June 28.
Map courtesy of the city of Austin.
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