Desperate Suburbanites in Zoning War

While not quite the stuff of Wisteria Lane – not yet, anyway – a battle is quietly brewing in Lakeway, the preened and polished enclave nestled to Austin's northwest.

A series of showdowns began in 2003, when the affluent Lake Travis community was facing the property owner's worst neighboring nightmare (except perhaps the dreaded auto body shop): the big box. When Wal-Mart proposed building a store, citizens sprang into action and formed Lakeway First, placing a nonbinding resolution on the September 2003 ballot against commercial buildings larger than 100,000 square feet. Handily winning (over 70%), the resolution was subsequently adopted into law by Lakeway's City Council; Wal-Mart went home boxless, the neighboring property values were untouched, and all was right with the suburbs. Until now.

While some retirement homes follow the Wal-Mart model – low overhead, staffed by wage-slaves scrambling for cleanup on aisle A-12 – that's not the proposed Summit at Lakeway. A project of the American Retirement Corporation, this ain't no ordinary old-folks home – it's five stories of octogenarian opulence, 200 apartments, and 30 "villas" designed for independent living, with plans for outlying town houses and homes. While the grandiosity would seemingly echo the spirit of Lakeway, for some residents, the scale of the project – at 252,000 square feet larger than the proposed Wal-Mart – does not. They believe their family homes would be dwarfed by the complex. (The ARC site straddles the line between Lakeway and the Village of the Hills – a more exclusive private community built around the Hills Country Club, and its sprawling, golf course, co-designed by none other than Jack Nicklaus.)

The fact that the ARC is already trumpeting its arrival in the early fall of 2006 has some even angrier, saying Lakeway's officials have reneged on their promises. The fight began over interpretation of the resolution council passed two years ago – when the Beast from Bentonville was lurking, the resolution allowed for a big-box ban, but only on commercial buildings. While city officials in Lakeway may be following the letter of the law in permitting the ARC project, some complain they're not adhering to the spirit. That was until a November Zoning and Planning commission meeting, where Lakeway's city attorney said the size of the project violates the community's existing building ordinances.

As it stands right now, the ZAP commission is picking up the proposed development Jan. 4, with a rezoning request by the Summit up for consideration. If it passes the commission, it will head to Lakeway City Council for approval Jan. 17. Judging from the Lakeway flame-war burning up local e-mails, the meetings will be well attended and full of public thunder.

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