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Council postpones airport overlay amendments with related zoning case

Friday, March 13, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The Austin-Bergstrom International Airport plans to double in size over the next two decades, welcoming and sending off about 812 flights per day and serving as many as 30 million passengers a year by 2037.

That increase in operations, said Shane Harbinson, assistant director of airport planning and development, is going to bring higher levels of noise to the area surrounding the airport, even as new technologies are making aircraft quieter.

With an eye to the Federal Aviation Administration, airport management wants City Council to remove residential as a permitted use from the third overlay zone, a buffer zone surrounding the inner no-build zones that are most impacted by flight noise. Council postponed that request Thursday, along with a related zoning request for a mixed-use site located within the third zone.

“It sounds like there are some real questions of fact on the table,” Council Member Greg Casar said. “It seems high-stakes enough that I’d rather take it offline.”

When the airport overlay was established in 2001, the FAA chipped in 75 percent of the costs to relocate 429 families, 14 businesses, and four schools outside of the areas most impacted by noise. Harbinson said the city may not be able to ask for those kinds of relocation and sound mitigation funds in the future if it falls out of compliance with federal noise standards because of poor land use decisions.

Since the 1970s, federal standards have held that an area registering an average of 65 decibels may not be appropriate for residential use. Above 65 decibels, the FAA recommends noise mitigation construction techniques to bring interior noise down to a more reasonable level.

But if the FAA were to change that, as some groups have called for, bringing the threshold down to Europe’s current standards of 55 decibels or lower, Harbinson said the city would be responsible for bringing residential sites into compliance through noise mitigation or relocation.

Even without changes to federal regulations, Harbinson said the airport will “always be under construction” as it continues to increase operations, making noise problems progressively worse and expanding the area of land impacted by that 65 decibel threshold.

The overlay amendments would remove two of three existing exceptions that allow for residential use in the buffer zone. Of note, it would remove an exception that allows for residential on lots that were part of a neighborhood plan when the overlay was created in 2001.

As it happens, an application was filed in July 2018 for a mixed-use site with plans for an estimated 390 residential units on the eastern edge of the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan, at 1501 Airport Commerce Drive, within the buffer zone. Days earlier, the Planning Commission had recommended the proposed amendments prohibiting residential in the buffer zone. Then, in September of last year, the commission recommended against the mixed-use zoning request.

The Montopolis Neighborhood contact team, on the other hand, supports the mixed-use plan with the condition that 18 of the units will be available at 60 percent median family income. The Planning and Zoning Department recommends keeping with the neighborhood plan’s goal to keep the area inside the buffer zone for commercial use.

Steve Drenner of the Drenner Group said the property, located northwest of the airport across the intersection of East Ben White Boulevard and U.S. Highway 183, would never be affected by airport expansion. Given its location, he said, “Highway noise matters more than the airport.”

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