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Disagreement over valid petition delays Northeast Austin zoning case

Tuesday, February 1, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

controversial rezoning at the intersection of Grady and Brownie in Northeast Austin turned more contentious at City Council Thursday when a neighbor and the applicant accused each other of exploiting a nonnative-English-speaking family to sway their opinion on the case.

The family members, whose first language is Vietnamese, hold the deciding vote in a valid petition against the rezoning and have changed their opinion multiple times.

Agent for the applicant Victoria Haase insisted that the family still supports the rezoning after withdrawing their signature from the valid petition. “They were told things that scared them,” Haase said. “And when they heard the truth and the facts of what was going to happen here, they then agreed that they did support the case.” 

Neighbor Jade Lovera, who is against the rezoning, said she spoke to the family before Thursday’s meeting and confirmed their opposition. “(The family) said that the lady that came and talked to them just talked and talked, and they did not understand,” Lovera said. “So they just signed whatever she had.” 

Haase told the Austin Monitor that it was not her who spoke with the family but rather the owner of the property up for rezoning. She added that information about the project was given in Vietnamese months ago.

Valid petitions from neighbors can sink zoning cases. If property owners representing 20 percent of the area within 200 feet of a rezoning sign the petition, Council must approve the rezoning with a 9-vote supermajority. Otherwise, the rezoning only needs six votes to pass. In this case, this family’s signature is the difference between a valid or invalid petition.  

Haase requests Multifamily-Moderate Density (MF-4) and Commercial Services Mixed-Use (CS-MU) zoning for several vacant lots at the corner of Grady and Brownie drives so the property owner can develop condos with ground-floor commercial space. City staffers, the Planning Commission and City Council prefer less dense Multifamily-Low Density (MF-2) and Neighborhood Commercial Mixed-Use (LR-MU) zoning. Council has already approved MF-2 and LR-MU zoning on two out of three readings. While Haase is amenable to MF-2, she still prefers CS-MU for the commercial portion. 

Haase told the Austin Monitor that if Council approves the less dense zoning, the likely outcome would be 15-18 units alongside a strip center or gas station. With the denser zoning, 35 to 40 units – some income-restricted – would be built over ground-floor retail.

The case proved controversial at the Planning Commission, where Lovera said the rezoning would subject neighbors to “further oppression and systemic racism” and “result in rapid displacement of long-term residents.” Lovera also told the Planning Commission that she would not support the rezoning even if the resulting project was 100 percent affordable. Lovera had campaigned for the District 4 seat that Council Member Greg Casar will soon vacate in order to run for Congress, but was defeated by Chito Vela on Jan. 25. 

Council at first did not agree to a postponement. Council Member Mackenzie Kelly moved to postpone the case to March 3, but no one seconded her motion. It was only later in the meeting, after more neighbors criticized Council for not postponing the case, that Casar decided to delay a vote until March 24. Council approved the postponement unanimously, with some members noting the lack of clarity on the Vietnamese-speaking family’s position. Haase, while “reluctant,” agreed to the postponement.

The case will now take over a year to decide; the rezoning application was filed on March 16, 2021. While this time frame is longer than average for rezonings in Austin, it is not unheard of.

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This story has been changed since publication to clarify that Haase did not speak directly to the family and to clarify the sequence of events.

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