It's been a long time coming, but residents of two Southwest Austin neighborhood groups were finally given a public platform to air years of pent-up grievances about a land-use case gone dreadfully awry.
The cathartic moment arrived Feb. 21 at a Planning Commission meeting to consider a measure that would plug some loopholes in the city's land code that allows some developments to quietly sail through the administrative approval process without an adequate policy in place to notify neighbors and provide sufficient opportunity for them to appeal the decision in a timely manner.
The residents recounted to commissioners how they were completely shut out of a multilayered administrative decision that quietly green-lighted a 1,000-seat amphitheatre – an outdoor performance venue that will serve as the crown jewel of Dream City, PromiseLand West Church's new campus under construction on a 53-acre tract along Highway 71 in the rapidly growing Oak Hill area. (See "Then There's This: Sound and Light," Jan. 12.) The amphitheatre has been a longtime dream of the church pastor, the Rev. Randy Phillips, who had initially envisioned building it at the church's East 51st Street site. Phillips is now in the process of carrying out his dream in Southwest Austin, where PromiseLand has built up a sizable sister congregation.
The amphitheatre decision was made so quietly, in fact, that many people – both in and out of city government – didn't actually know that the approval had been granted until a 2008 email suddenly surfaced last year. One has to wonder how many other mysterious administrative "approvals" might be buried in case files and computer hard drives in the city Planning and Development Review Department, only to be discovered, dusted off, and declared a done deal years later – too late for anyone to appeal. Sorry!
At the Feb. 21 meeting, Planning and Development's Robert Heil (who apparently wasn't directly involved in the PromiseLand case), provided the commission with draft amendments to an existing ordinance, a directive made by City Council members after a series of one-on-one meetings with neighborhood residents.
After hearing from representatives from the Hill Country Estates and Covered Bridge homeowners associations, commissioners decided the proposed amendments before them didn't go far enough to prevent the same fiasco from happening again. They asked Heil to return to the drawing board and tighten some of the revisions while the subcommittee met for more consideration of the residents' complaints. "This was the first time we were allowed to tell the entire story of the Dream City fiasco in a public forum, and we were definitely pleased by the reaction of the Planning Commission," one neighborhood representative cheerfully reported after the meeting.
The Planning Commission ultimately approved Heil's additional revisions this week, moving the ball back to council to kick around. "The 'fix' for the [PromiseLand] issue will involve multiple actions on the part of City Council," Commissioner Danette Chimenti explained in an email. "One is to get the ordinance passed so that notification can go out in time for appeals when city staff makes an unusual new-use determination such as this." But since the PromiseLand Church case unfortunately established precedence for allowing a church to build a 1,000-seat amphitheatre for outdoor performances, the council now needs to establish limits in the event other churches are now considering building an amphitheatre in a neighborhood near you.
As things stand now, the Hill Country Estates neighborhood association, which led the most vocal opposition to the amphitheatre development – with the backing of its umbrella group, the Oak Hills Association of Neighborhoods – remains silent on whether it will pursue legal action in this case. It's also unclear if the neighborhoods and the church are brokering some sort of peacemaking deal, although the impasse between the two sides appears to be immovable at this point.
Two significant questions are left hanging: Is the church correct in claiming that its religious status frees PromiseLand from the hassle of filing for a sound-permit application? And is the church also correct in its claim that its charity status allows PromiseLand to profit from proceeds garnered at an amphitheatre event? The church believes it's right on both points. What's City Council to do with such religious bravado?
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