Friday, August 14, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

Springdale Farm project earns variance from Planning Commission

At its Tuesday meeting, the Planning Commission passed an environmental variance for 755 Springdale Road. The applicant, StoryBuilt, has sought the change for more than a year, but the case failed to clear the Environmental Commission earlier this summer due to concerns about building in a critical water quality zone.

StoryBuilt is hoping to construct a mixed-use development on the site, with residential and commercial uses, that preserves trees and other features and includes an affordable housing component. In addition to open space, the development could have an independent grocery, a coffee shop or cafe, and some version of a farm stand.

The Environmental Commission voted overwhelmingly to reject the variance at its June meeting. Bobby Levinski of the Save Our Springs Alliance urged the board to “apply the code as written” and reject the request, and Watershed Protection staff backed him up.

On Tuesday, Planning Commissioner Rob Schneider asked what had happened between the time staff rejected and recommended the project.

Kristy Nguyen, an environmental review specialist at the Development Services Department, said that her department, Watershed Protection and the applicant worked “very cooperatively” on the problem and came up with a solution that minimized development in the water quality zone and therefore satisfied staff concerns.

“Overall, this is a great opportunity to enhance a stream held within a growing urban area,” she said, as urban streams often have impaired water quality.

According to a staff memo, StoryBuilt initially sought to build two fire-lane hammerheads and building overhangs in the critical water quality zone. After meeting with a wetland biologist and working further with staff, the applicant revised the application to remove one of the hammerheads and include additional riparian restoration.

Staffers were also impressed by StoryBuilt’s improved riparian restoration plan. That plan will add canopy-forming riparian species to the banks, increase small trees and large shrubs on the site, delete species with high moisture requirements, relocate proposed planting clusters from the outer edges of the floodplain to the banks, add details on the invasive plant removal, and install large fallen tree trunks to increase long-term soil organic matter.

By removing the southern hammerhead, StoryBuilt has minimized its deviation from code, staff explained. And by doing more restoration than required by code, the project will ultimately elevate the water quality zone more than is required.

“I appreciate the applicant and staff working together to make these improvements and to change all of the noes we heard last time to yeses,” Schneider said.

Chair Conor Kenny said he appreciates that the water quality will be better than before the development. “I think that, especially considering how old our code is, when staff and applicants are really able to work together to get something superior to what code requires, even if it’s not the letter of what code requires, I think everybody wins,” he said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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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.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Development Services Department: A city department that reviews development and inspection services.

Watershed Protection Department: The city's Watershed Protection Department works to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and water pollution in the city. The department is mostly funded by the city's drainage fee.

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