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Monday, August 2, 2021 by Jonathan Lee
Developer sidesteps valid petition, drawing Council members’ ire
Five City Council members voted against an affordable housing project in Northeast Austin after the developer skirted a valid petition by reducing the requested rezoning area. The case still passed on first reading Thursday, with six votes in favor, but those opposed sent a clear message discouraging the practice.
“I think it changes the rules in the middle of the game, and I don’t think it’s appropriate and it disturbs me greatly,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said of the tactics, which prompted her vote against the rezoning. Council members Leslie Pool and Alison Alter, who made similar statements, were joined by Council members Kathie Tovo and Mackenzie Kelly in opposition.
The rezoning at 1701 E. Anderson Lane would make way for 89 income-restricted units, all priced for those making 60 percent of the area median income. The applicant requests Community Commercial (GR-NP) from the current Limited Office (LO-CO-NP) and Rural Residential (RR-NP) zoning. Both city staffers and the Planning Commission recommended approval.
Developers occasionally use the tactic to skirt petitions, which can thwart rezonings by forcing a 9-vote supermajority of Council instead of the typical 6-vote majority. A valid petition contains the signatures of property owners representing at least 20 percent of the area within a 200-foot buffer around the tract up for rezoning.
In this case, the applicant ( Patricia Ivy for 183 Apartment Site, Ltd.) decided to decrease the rezoning from 4.22 acres to 2.79 acres (plans remain unaffected). The move, which reduced the buffer area from 381,184 square feet to 258,415 square feet, dropped the area with signatures from 29.45 percent to 8.41 percent by cutting out some property owners entirely and reducing the impact of others.
Neighbors who signed the petition said they felt duped.
“This is the height of closed-door politics,” said Lulu Francois, who lives just south of the proposed project. Francois told Council that she and others signed the petition due to four areas of concern: security and trespassing, privacy, trash and debris along Buttermilk Creek, and erosion of the creek.
The valid petition is neighbors’ primary recourse to oppose rezonings beyond public statements. The Texas Local Government Code governs petition rights.
Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison urged other Council members to vote in favor, despite the move by the developer. Though saying she felt “conflicted” about the project since it is located along U.S. Highway 183 – an area that is unsafe for pedestrians – the need for more housing swayed her. “I’ve got to tell you, we are struggling,” Harper-Madison said. “We need housing.”
The swing vote in the case was Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who strongly criticized the developer yet voted in favor. “I’m very also disturbed, troubled by the tactics that were laid out tonight,” Fuentes said. “I am going to vote in support on first reading because I do believe that we need more affordable housing.”
The case will come back to Council on Aug. 26 for second and third reading.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
affordable housing: This general term refers to housing that is affordable to Austinites, with or without subsidy.
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.