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Planning Commission fails to recommend zoning change, citing proximity to hazardous materials

Friday, May 17, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Abutting the Cypress Semiconductor manufacturing plant is an undeveloped 1.63-acre tract of land that is currently zoned commercial. This transition property connects the industrial tract to the east with residential developments closer to town.

On May 14, Ferris Clements, an associate attorney with Armbrust & Brown who was representing the developer of this property, came to the Planning Commission to request that the commission recommend a zoning change for the property at 5101 E. Oltorf St. from Commercial to Mixed Use to allow for the construction of 190 units on the property.

Neither city staff nor the Planning Commission approved of this request. The Planning Commission voted 9-2 not to recommend the zoning change.

The Austin Fire Department, which according to Wendy Rhoades with the Planning and Zoning Department began reviewing all zoning change requests several years ago, recommends a 1,056-foot separation between residences and the property line of a site with hazardous materials. “At this location (the buffer) would only be 110 feet,” said Rhoades.

According to Yvonne Espinoza with AFD, “The distance is based on the emergency response guide that is published by the Department of Transportation,” and Austin Fire follows DOT guidelines. She explained that for certain chemicals, DOT gives cautionary guidance for developing residences an optimal distance away in case of evacuation.

Clements, however, argued, “There are a number of residences that already fall within its buffer” and that requiring such a separation to exist would be a moratorium for future residential development in the area that would “severely affect the value of homes that are nearby.”

Malcolm Yeatts, the chair of the East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, came to the commission to speak on behalf of the neighborhood to say that “we are agreeable to multifamily (development).” However, he also brought the commission’s attention to the East Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan, which was adopted in 2006 and supports commercial and industrial uses along East Oltorf. Staff notes in the backup bolster the use outlined in the neighborhood plan, saying, “The property is located within a Job Center, as identified on the Growth Concept Map, which per Imagine Austin, is intended to accommodate those businesses not well-suited for residential or environmentally sensitive areas.”

The only restrictions on commercial development on the site are outlined in a conditional overlay to prevent some heavy-duty uses like restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores.

“It sounds like this is going to be all residential, and the opportunity to have commercial at this (site) will be gone,” said Commissioner Karen McGraw. She indicated that buffering an industrial site with a light commercial zone is an ideal way to transition into more residential land use and also take into account public safety.

Commissioner Todd Shaw saw the situation in a similar light: “I don’t know what we’re doing here. We have a recommendation from the fire department saying this is clearly a risk … (and) I doubt we’re going to get Cypress to get rid of hazardous materials.”

Commissioners James Schissler and James Shieh voted against the motion and Commissioner Richard Mendoza was absent.

In defense of his position, Schissler said, “I don’t think chemicals leaking with all these government regulations (is such a problem) that it can’t be surmounted.”

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