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Small business forced to pay thousands on zoning ‘technicality’

Monday, February 7, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The Zoning and Platting Commission Tuesday blamed the city’s complex code after hearing the case of a landscaping business being forced to rezone its property at a cost of thousands of dollars. 

The 1.7-acre property at 13561 Pond Springs Road in Northwest Austin is home to Perfect Cuts Landscaping, and was previously a nursery for many years. Last year, the city’s code department cited Perfect Cuts for operating a business not allowed in Community Commercial (GR) zoning. Because the city deems landscaping to be “construction sales and services” – a use only allowed in the more intense General Commercial-Mixed-Use (CS-MU) zoning – it needs a zoning change. City staffers recommend GR-MU zoning, which would in effect force the business either to move or to shut down.

Nikelle Meade, representative for the owner, told the Austin Monitor that her client has “had to go to extraordinary difficulty and expense to satisfy what amounts more or less to a technicality.” According to Meade, the owner has been trying to work out this problem with the city for nearly two years. Code enforcement cited the property last February, meaning the owner has accrued thousands in fines in addition to a $11,331 fee to change the zoning. According to the citation, fines accrue at up to $1,000 per day after a 30-day grace period.

“We will be asking for any citation fines to be waived in the interest of justice,” Meade said. “We feel strongly that no citation should ever have been issued.”

Meade said fines will continue accruing until City Council approves the new zoning. The zoning change request was filed in September. The case has a date in Municipal Court in the coming months to sort out the matter. 

Perfect Cuts uses the property to store its pickup trucks and landscaping tools. Some neighbors object to the rezoning and have complained about noise from trucks and workers socializing and playing music. 

ZAP commissioners sympathized with the owner and recommended CS-MU zoning. “I would be okay granting CS zoning,” Chair Nadia Barrera-Ramirez said. “It’s expensive to make this business move.” Barrera-Ramirez pointed out that the area has lots of commercial use and that there are several other landscape companies and nurseries along Pond Springs Road. 

While everyone was on board with CS zoning, there was some debate on how much floor area ratio – a measure of density – should be allowed. Commissioner Betsy Greenberg wanted to limit the site to 1:1 FAR to keep the density down. Commissioner Hank Smith, however, wanted to allow 2:1 FAR, in case the site is redeveloped into homes down the line.

“The 1:1 FAR gives me concern,” Smith said. “I’d like to be able to accommodate more housing because that’s what we need to see.”

The commission voted 7-4 to approve CS-MU zoning with 2:1 FAR. The zoning would also come with a conditional overlay that limits specific undesirable uses and keeps a 50-foot vegetative buffer to shield a nearby home from the business.

Commissioners thought the business’s ordeal merited action. “I think the code should be fixed,” Greenberg said. She proposed a new landscaping services category that would be allowed in GR zoning, which the Codes and Ordinances Joint Committee could propose to Council. 

“This is a really torturous process having to rezone properties, to see us, just for landscaping,” Greenberg said.

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