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Tuesday, April 9, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

New medical office moves forward with no recommendation from Environmental Commission

Trees are such an essential resource in Central Texas that even the thought of razing them to the ground can rattle the branches of the Environmental Commission.

The city of Austin does not have the authority to mandate the preservation of heritage trees within the extraterritorial jurisdiction. Despite that, the Environmental Commission was uncomfortable approving a variance request for twice the cut and fill that is allowed under code and increasing impervious cover from 40 percent to 50 percent of the site area for the development of a medical complex at 6420 Bee Caves Road that would necessitate the removal of 29 trees. After careful consideration, commissioners voted 5-0-1 to approve the project with Commissioner Peggy Maceo abstaining and tipping the vote from approval or disapproval to no recommendation as it moves forward.

“The ones smack dab in the middle of the footprint, maybe these trees aren’t in a condition to be worth saving,” said Karen Wunsch, the managing director of Masterplan Texas Land Use Consultants, who was representing the applicant, in response to the suggestion that they consider saving some of the larger trees among the 29 slated for removal.

Whether they can be saved cannot be determined without an arborist, a step that the commission pointed out would be necessary in order to conclude if the trees were salvageable.

Still, Commissioner Andrew Creel acknowledged that there was no legal way for Council to enforce their recommendation to save several of the trees. He cautioned the commissioners, “We don’t want to go too crazy with this (ask).”

Dr. Ed Buckingham, the developer of the medical park, reassured the commission that his “intention is to put trees along the drive.” Although he didn’t have the exact number he intended to plant in the complex, he said, “I would bet we’re going to exceed what we’re taking out.”

Staff explained that they had worked with the project team to find a compromise to ensure that not all the trees on the 4.5-acre site were uprooted. As the property spans two different watersheds that divide the tract neatly in half, staff and the applicant came up with a solution that moves the impervious cover from the rural water supply portion of the tract onto the suburban water supply portion. The result is that the site plan proposes the total amount of 0.78 acres of impervious cover on the suburban watershed portion of the lot. Under code, the project is allowed 0.86 acres on that area.

Additionally, to mitigate for the trees being removed on the developable site, staff recommended that Council place a restrictive covenant on the rural water supply portion of the tract that restricts any future development from occurring.

“We thought that was a good compromise,” said Atha Philips, the environmental program coordinator with the Watershed Protection Department. Wunsch noted that the applicant was in agreement with the compromise.

When asked why the project as a whole was not moved slightly to avoid some of the larger trees, Wunsch explained that the flat portion of the site was the only piece of land that was realistically buildable. Moving it in any direction would either result in more cut and fill required to support the steep slope of the driveway or a longer driveway that would add additional impervious cover to the site.

As it stands in the plans now, she emphasized that it was the most dense development that could be designed.

Even with explanations and reassurances, the commission was unable to recommend the requested variances. The project will move forward to the Land Use Commission with no recommendation.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ): The unincorporated land within the five miles of the city limits that is not within the city limits or ETJ of another city. Austin is the only municipality authorized to annex land within its ETJ.

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