Zoning commission flirts with stalling Champion project
Friday, July 20, 2018 by Jack Craver
Opponents of the Champion tract development had yet another opportunity to air their grievances against the proposed multifamily development Tuesday night.
Their efforts to stall the project were nearly successful due to low attendance at the Zoning and Platting Commission meeting as well as a tussle between commissioners and city staff about the commission’s role in the matter.
Although City Council has already approved the controversial zoning changes and a slew of ordinance waivers, the proposed 300-unit apartment complex still had to get approval from the commission on its site plan.
The commission doesn’t have much discretion on the matter. As long as the site plan complies with regulations, it is obligated to approve. If it rejects the site plan, it must explain why the plan is out of compliance. Denying a site plan that is in compliance can put the city in jeopardy of a lawsuit by the developer.
Staff from the Development Services Department had recommended approval, saying that the proposed plan complies with all of the environmental regulations of the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance, which applies to the tract near RM 2222 and Loop 360.
However, a number of project opponents made the trek down to City Hall to voice their displeasure with the development.
“The whole process has been egregious,” said Linda Bailey, who lives near the property.
Kimberly Key, who recently moved into a house on City Park Road that she and her husband built, was concerned about the addition of 1,200 daily vehicle trips to a road that is already dangerous. She was unaware that a major apartment complex would be popping up next door and would be obstructing the couple’s views and encroaching on their sense of privacy.
“I can’t really go meditate because I’ll have to deal with people looking in,” she said.
Key added that in addition to “all those personal little NIMBY things,” she had “serious” concerns about whether the city was allowing a deep-pocketed developer to get out of the strict environmental rules that she had to obey when building their home.
“Bless all people, and I think everybody needs a home. But we had to follow much more stringent guidelines,” she said.
Although commissioners could not do anything about the zoning change that Council had already approved, they scrutinized whether the developer was following the conditions set by a development bonus it had been awarded that will grant its buildings additional height. The bonus was awarded because the developer had agreed to provide six of 12 possible environmental or aesthetic features identified in the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance.
Some commissioners were unsatisfied with how vaguely those features were defined in the site plan. Commissioner Ann Denkler puzzled over the apparent promise that the development would use “energy-conserving or water-conserving devices that reduce energy consumption or water consumption below city requirements.”
The developer’s team responded that the project would include energy-efficient air-conditioning units, low-flush toilets, and energy-efficient washers and dryers.
“Does that apply to all of the units? I’m really having trouble with this not being quantified,” replied Denkler.
Richard Suttle, an agent for the developer, replied that those details would be spelled out in the project’s building plans. “You can’t put plumbing plans on a site plan,” he said.
Denkler was still uncomfortable approving and said she did not want to vote to approve without assurance from the city legal department that the site plan was indeed in accordance with the rules and the commission was indeed unable to add further conditions or specifications to the site plan.
The problem was, there were no city attorneys present. However, the commission liaison, Andrew Rivera, said that attorneys were available “on call” to answer any questions.
Denkler suggested the commission table the item until it could get an answer from the law department.
A few minutes later, amid conversation about tabling the item, Rivera announced that he had just received a response from the law department by email. “If staff states that it meets the requirement, then ZAP must approve or articulate why it does not meet the requirement,” it said.
Denkler was unsatisfied: “Andrew, I want law here.”
“Law is present,” replied Rivera. “I’m conveying to you what law has stated.”
“I think they can come downstairs and talk to us,” said Denkler.
Chair Jolene Kiolbassa had just looked up the city code’s language regarding what the commission could do when presented with a site plan and a development plan. “The whole thing is a little fudgey, the wording could be better,” she said, before asking Rivera, “so, will we have a response?”
“You have the response,” said Rivera.
“Well, we were asking for legal to come – to be able to ask questions,” said Kiolbassa.
“They will not be able to be physically present, but you have been provided the response,” said Rivera.
That was apparently good enough for five of the seven commissioners present. But Denkler and Commissioner David King abstained when the vote came to approve the site plan, meaning the motion fell short of the six votes needed to pass.
Since the commission is legally obligated to approve the site plan, that presented potential problems. But Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Jerry Rusthoven didn’t seem too worried about it, noting that the commission’s decision could be appealed to Council.
Denkler then had a change of heart, saying that she had been assured by staff that the commission truly was unable to add conditions to the plan. After a number of commissioners denounced the vague language of the ordinance, they voted unanimously to approve the site plan.
Image courtesy of Google Maps. This story has been corrected. An earlier version stated that staff from the Planning and Zoning Department recommended approval, but it was staff from the Development Services Department.
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