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County commissioners see SH-45 development as key to more affordable housing

Friday, July 27, 2018 by Ryan Young

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court received an update on Turner’s Crossing, a proposed mixed-use subdivision that would be located about 15 miles south of downtown Austin. The project will make use of a public improvement district to fund more services and infrastructure for itself. It is also expected to provide benefits to Travis County at large, particularly more affordable housing.

Turner’s Crossing is located near the intersection of Interstate 35 and State Highway 45. The property is divided into two distinct parts, one to the north and one to the south, by State Highway 45, which runs east-west. It is very close to the Hays County line and falls within the Hays Independent School District.

The public improvement district is a provision in Texas law that allows counties to impose special property taxes over a specific area. Counties use PIDs to finance local improvements to public infrastructure and services. The Turner’s Crossing PID would provide future residents with “improvements and services well in excess of Travis County standard requirements,” such as amenity centers, commercial services and a comprehensive road network that will include sidewalks and trails.

The Turner’s Crossing PID was first proposed in 2016, but since then, the original developer, True Life, ceased operations in Texas and pulled out of the project. The landowner turned to Meritage Homes, who augmented the master plan with a 4.5-mile network of trails, more open space and more acreage for an on-site school.

Meritage also eliminated all condominium units, reduced the number of multifamily units and increased the number of single-family units. The net effect was to reduce the number of new homes and make the development less dense overall.

Meritage’s attorney, Austin lawyer Steve Metcalfe, characterized these changes as “all for the better.”

During the presentation, Rick Rosenberg, Meritage’s PID adviser, was keen to point out that Turner’s Crossing would be affordable to middle-class homebuyers. He anticipates the savings will come from a low property tax burden and an architectural style that prioritizes energy efficiency.

Compared to the total property tax rate for the Sunfield subdivision, located just a couple of miles down I-35, near Buda, the tax rate for Turner’s Crossing would be a full 15 cents per $100 lower. Furthermore, Rosenberg said the savings in water and electricity bills enabled by efficient home design would pay for “between half and two-thirds” of the property tax portion dedicated to the PID.

And the new home prices would range from $220,000, a price point affordable to households making 90 percent of the median family income, to $350,000, affordable to households making 120 percent of the median family income, Rosenberg said.

All of this was much appreciated by the commissioners, who are grappling with a persistent affordability crisis in the Austin region.

Commissioner Brigid Shea said it would be an “enormous benefit” if future residents could save on their utility bills “because a lot of times people can afford to get into a lower-cost home, but they have super-high utility bills.”

“We hear stories all the time about people choosing between running air conditioning and having money for groceries,” Shea added.

The Turner’s Crossing PID would also contribute 10 percent of its proceeds to Travis County’s affordable housing fund, an amount Rosenberg estimated would be about $3 million.

Meritage would also donate 21 acres of land to Hays ISD to use for a future school. The land would be taken out of the northern half of the property, and the school would be the only one in Hays ISD to be located north of SH-45.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion appreciated the donation, but he said he wanted a transportation plan so that children could get to the new school safely, “particularly (for) those who have to come from the other side of the highway.”

Matthew Scrivener, a Meritage representative, said “there will be a lot of connectivity within the project, both vehicular and pedestrian,” including a pedestrian path that will cross beneath SH-45. He also said they are still working out the details of the new school with Hays ISD.

“I’d still like to continue to think about how we can create local projects,” Travillion said, “(how) we can use some of our assets and resources to bring down the price so that county employees or teachers might be better able to afford to live in affordable projects.”

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