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Reporter’s Notebook: Considering the totality

Monday, July 15, 2019 by Austin Monitor

Lodge party… After a divisive case in April concerning the use of the home at 2311 Shoal Creek Blvd., the question of whether a fraternity house is considered a single-family use or a club/lodge use was still up for debate. According to Planning and Zoning Director Jerry Rusthoven, planning staff determined that the property was single-family use despite reports of raucous parties and near-weekly noise complaints from neighbors. That’s because the code states – among other things – that six unrelated individuals or someone in the employ of the fraternity need to be living on the premises in order for the property to be considered a club or lodge. The code also specifies that a club or lodge is operated “by a private or nonprofit association, primarily for use by members and guests.” Now, however, according to a July 8 memo from Rusthoven, that determination is no longer valid. In a reversal of the Planning Commission’s previous conclusion about 2311 Shoal Creek Blvd., the memo states, “There is a long list of evidence that has been acquired that indicate that the use of the property has exceeded traditional characteristics of single-family residential …. Based on this additional information, we have determined that the activities described above are more similar to those that would be found with a ‘Club or Lodge’ use.”

Still, this reevaluation of the property’s use may be too little, too late; the fraternity put the house up for sale in April. Nevertheless, the memo implies that the method city staffers use to determine whether a fraternity house is deserving of a club/lodge designation will change in the future to take into consideration the “totality of the circumstances.” That means hosting frequent, large and noisy parties or advertising the home online as a frat house will factor into the decision process. Rusthoven told the Austin Monitor that just because a fraternity or sorority owns a property does not automatically make it a club or lodge, but “if this (situation) crops up again, somehow this decision will be used.” Rusthoven said this unusual case was a “strange creature” and that the vast majority of properties being used as frat houses have a group residential use. In hindsight, he said, “I think if they had come to us first I would have said … don’t do it.”

Setting the record straight… In more specific memo news, Economic Development Department interim director Rebecca Giello penned a memo to Council and the city manager last week to clarify a mistake made in an Austin American-Statesman op-ed. The piece, explained Giello, mistakenly reported that Dropbox was made to repay all city incentives, with interest, after failing to create promised jobs. Giello wrote,

“Dropbox did terminate its agreement with the City, but no repayment to the City was required or made. The City’s Chapter 380 economic incentives program is structured as pay-for-performance, meaning annual economic incentive payments are made only after compliance is demonstrated. A company’s obligation must be demonstrated to and affirmed by City staff and is evaluated by an independent reviewer as part of the process before an economic incentive payment is made. Dropbox did not receive an incentive payment from the City; thus, the company was not required to repay the City.”

The state of Texas, which apparently does not have a similar policy in place, did force a repayment of incentives by the company.

This week’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jessi Devenyns and Elizabeth Pagano.

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