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A neighborhood’s request to build a private park draws concern over policing

Thursday, May 20, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Last week the Planning Commission heard a surprisingly controversial debate among neighbors in East Austin’s Senate Hills over whether to allow the construction of a new neighborhood park.

Though the commissioners all sided with those in favor of the park, the park’s future is uncertain after a majority of commissioners indicated their preference for a public instead of private park. Some feared that keeping the park private, as the neighborhood requested, would lead to policing of non-residents who use the space.

The neighborhood’s homeowners association is requesting a conditional use permit to allow the park to be built. The site’s Single Family-Small Lot (SF-4A-NP) zoning does not allow a community recreation (private) use without Planning Commission approval. The park would be built on a one-acre public utility easement.

The neighborhood won’t have to foot the bill. The developer of an adjacent subdivision has agreed to pay for the park in full – including maintenance – in exchange for permission to funnel runoff into Senate Hill’s water detention ponds.

According to Andy Creel, president of the HOA, it has taken three and a half years, 10 public meetings and “a very lengthy discussion on Nextdoor” to get to this point.

The park would have paths, a pavilion, a nature play area, and a grill. Image courtesy LJA Engineering.

New parks are often a consensus issue for neighborhoods, but this case proved an exception.

Some neighbors raised concerns that the park would increase traffic, noise and crime.

“I’m afraid that the noise and the traffic caused by the park will be a disturbance to me,” said neighbor Ursula Carter. Carter said that the HOA’s proposed crime-deterrence method – dummy cameras – would not stop crime. “Also, there’s a very large park right across the street, so I don’t see the necessity for another park.”

Creel said that the meetings about the park generated “very passionate discussion” with “a little bit of yelling on occasion.” Several neighbors who opposed the park accused the HOA of lying in their written comments to the city, without giving further details.

“No solution can completely address all concerns from everybody,” Creel said. Ultimately, 76 homeowners voted in favor of the park to 29 against.

Though commissioners supported creating a park, some feared that keeping it private would enable neighbors to call the police on non-residents who are simply enjoying the space, potentially subjecting them to harm.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for creating private space where we can use policing to remove people from the neighborhood,” Commissioner Awais Azhar said. Azhar motioned to postpone the vote until June 8 to give the neighborhood time to consider allowing anyone to use the park.

Commissioner Joao Paulo Connolly concurred: “I may be in a small minority in this city on this, but I stand by the idea that … parks should be public spaces that everyone can enjoy.”

Commissioner Grayson Cox thought this would end the chances of the neighborhood getting a park. “What’s likely going to happen is the community is going to object to having a public use space be developed out, and they’ll just end up living with the overgrown (public utility easement).”

The commission voted 7-5 in favor of postponement. The message was clear: Unless the park is public, it might not get enough votes next time around.

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