Tuesday, November 5, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Milky Way property zoned for single-family condos, with conditions

City Council has taken action on a zoning case at the city’s western edge that some residents and environmental advocates say could result in catastrophe.

Before Council approved the request Thursday, Joyce Statz, president of Austin Firewise Alliance, framed the danger in dire terms: By allowing a lot of density in this part of the city, where wildlands meet development and road access is limited, the city is condemning a lot of people to death.

Residents of River Place, where the 42-acre property is located, gave similar warnings, noting that Milky Way Drive, the site’s only access road, is far from sufficient in case of evacuation. Fire Marshal Tom Vocke gave further weight to those concerns, saying that the site’s terrain, proximity to the Balcones wildlands and lack of road access puts it at high risk of wildfire.

Council approved the request to rezone the cul-de-sac property from Development Reserve (DR) to Townhouse and Condominium Residence (SF-6) zoning on second reading Oct. 7, but remained divided on the details of the conditional overlay meant to mitigate any damage of wildfires or other disasters.

Thursday’s vote hinged on two versions of the overlay put forth by Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter, the latter placing heavier restrictions on development, though both are more lenient than the recommendation of city staff.

City staff proposed zoning the site instead to Single-Family Residence Large Lot (SF-1), capping the number of total units at 45 and setting a minimum lot size at 21,000 square feet. The applicant accepted the unit max but insisted on the higher zoning to allow for smaller, more affordable housing types.

Flannigan proposed an alternative solution, limiting total units to 30 unless a second access road could be added. Meeting that condition, development would then be limited by the traffic capacity of Milky Way Drive, which the city has determined to be 1,200 daily trips.

Jerry Rusthoven, director of the Planning and Zoning Department, said the road traffic was last counted in September 2015, at a little over 400 daily trips, meaning the road could accommodate around 60 new units based on the daily trip patterns in that car-dependent area of the city.

The applicant could then get the full entitlements of the Townhouse and Condominium zoning, around 100 total units, if that second access road were open to public use, relieving traffic on Milky Way Drive.

Alter offered a slightly different overlay that would have kept the unit maximum at 30 unless the developer provided a second public access road. By removing the option for an emergency-access-only road, the overlay would have also eliminated the middle option of 60 units.

Milky Way Drive resident Brian Showers said that option may still represent “inappropriate zoning” at its proposed densities, but would no longer pose a serious threat to the safety of the neighborhood. Several neighbors also spoke in support of the zoning request in that scenario, but Alter’s vision failed to get enough votes from the dais.

Jeff Howard, representing the applicant, rejected the narrative being pushed by River Place residents. This will not be a high-density project under any scenario, he said, and will be very low density if no secondary access is provided.

Flannigan also defended the zoning request, noting that the conditional overlay’s requirements for fire protection and the applicant’s commitment to incorporating the building standards of the wildland-urban interface fire code will make for a residential development that is better than anything currently in the area.

The zoning request with Flannigan’s conditional overlay passed 8-3 with Council members Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Alter opposed.

Photo by Google Maps.

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