Thursday, January 28, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Parks board pushes for easement, land dedication on S. Congress project

The Parks and Recreation Board found that a development along South Congress Avenue adjacent to Williamson Creek must provide parkland as part of its site plan approval process, and cannot pay a fee in lieu of that donation.

The board voted 10-1 at Tuesday’s meeting to support the recommendation of city parks staff, pushing the Planning and Zoning Commission to reject the appeal of Mike McHone, representative of the residential project known as Wilder. Board Member Francoise Luca was the only vote against the appeal, which will be heard Feb. 9.

McHone sought to be granted the fee-in-lieu option under the city’s parkland dedication requirement because of the need for an easement along the southern edge of the property – at 4802 S. Congress Ave. – to give the public access to the greenbelt trail planned along the creek.

McHone argued that the narrow configuration of the site only allows an easement along a narrow driveway, which could create liability issues and pose a danger to those using the driveway, which also serves visitors to the development and occasional maintenance vehicle usage.

“The problem with that is we do not feel it’s safe from a liability standpoint to have any kind of a pedestrian access through that area, because at all times of day and night there will be 125 condominium units there, plus dumpsters and all kinds of service people coming,” he said. “We just do not feel it is safe to have a public access easement on our only driveway. We would be happy to donate the land to widen the greenbelt, but we think the trail itself and the access should be looked at on the next project.”

McHone asked for a fee of $254,000 to be paid instead of granting the easement, with the intention that the city could use the money to acquire other land along the greenbelt to provide public access.

Parks staffers said the property and development project met all five criteria under the parkland dedication policy to require land be provided instead of a fee. They also said the city is not allowed to consider owner liability in adjudicating such actions, and that existing law grants many protections to property owners that provide easements for public access to parks.

Staffers and board members discussed the possibility of creating protected areas and traffic-calming enhancements to lessen the threat to pedestrians commingling with traffic.

Board Member Nina Rinaldi asked McHone if the developer would be more agreeable to the easement requirement if the city were to assume the liability for the area, but legal staffers said the city is prohibited from entering into that kind of agreement.

“I see this as a really important piece of parkland that needs to be dedicated,” Rinaldi said. “It’s really important to have access to these kinds of trail amenities and I would like us to find some way to make this work for pedestrians that are coming in and out of the greenbelt.”

Chair Dawn Lewis said she felt city staff members had evaluated the appeal properly, and that denying McHone’s appeal was in the best interest of supporting the priority to create parkland as the city grows.

“This is not about liability, because every project you can find has some kind of liability issue,” she said. “This is really about a policy difference and I feel like staff did what they’re supposed to do. As somebody who is an advocate for parks and green space and for connectivity throughout our city, it’s incumbent on us to look out for that.”

Photo by Tim made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Parks and Recreation Board: The city’s Parks and Recreation Board members deal with the acquisition, development, improvement, and maintenance of Austin’s parks and playgrounds.

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