Point Austin: Suburban Nightmare

One neighborhood's battle against a church amphitheatre

Point Austin
When it comes to neighborhood development issues, there are two diametrically opposed camps: those who believe neighborhood associations hold too much "no-growth" sway at City Hall, and those who believe the local real estate machine is exceptionally good at driving that message.

Indeed, NAs are blamed for everything from suburban sprawl to Austin's high cost of living. Keep in mind, though, that many developers actually prefer building in the suburbs – so much so that even the suburban neighborhoods have started to organize in opposition to some developments.

In the rolling hills of South­west Austin, which has grown faster than any other area of the city, residents are getting their first glimpse of Austin's development review process – and they're not liking what they see. Most of these folks would hardly qualify as no-growthers; like everyone else, they're just trying to maintain their quality of life. That's not an unreasonable goal, considering Austin's quality of life is one of the chief selling points of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

No Public Forum

The latest but certainly not the last example of a suburban neighborhood trying to tame encroaching growth pertains to the planned $25 million campus of Prom­iseLand West Church, in an area along Highway 71 zoned for rural residential development. There are three subdivisions surrounding the planned campus, and none of them opposes the project, with the exception of one key feature: a 1,500-seat outdoor amphitheatre.

The amphitheatre continues to be the most contentious piece of the PromiseLand plan. It's an emotional sore point because the neighborhoods challenging the outdoor venue – most specifically the Hill Country Estates Homeowners Association – never had an opportunity to air their concerns in a public forum. They were dealt their first major blow earlier this year when a 2008 city email surfaced that effectively "hijacked and ramrodded the case," as one neighbor put it. The second blow was delivered last month, with the city rejecting the HOA's administrative appeal.

It's not entirely clear how the email appeared out of the blue, but its author, Greg Guernsey, director of the city's Plan­ning and Development Review Department, is sticking by its content. His email, dated Dec. 23, 2008, was a response to the church's previous engineering firm, which had laid out the church's plans in a letter and asked for his administrative approval. In reply, Guern­sey granted the request and wished the engineer happy holidays. Because churches have the luxury of leeway in development matters, Guernsey's approval was entirely legal. But how many church developments include 1,500-seat outdoor venues opposed by neighboring subdivisions?

Nearly two years passed before the church submitted its development application – through another engineer that was representing the church, Hanrahan Pritch­ard Engineering Inc. In January of this year, city staffer Sarah Graham was put in charge of the church's development application. Judging by city documents, Graham was most concerned about the amphitheatre. She set to work pursuing the question of whether the facility was being built for "religious assembly" or for "outdoor entertainment," which would require further review by the Planning Commission.

According to city records, Graham received an internal memo in February, alerting her that Guernsey had already signed off on the amphitheatre in 2008. The heads-up about the email could have been interpreted as a warning to back off, but Graham continued to question the amphitheatre's purpose to make sure everything was up to snuff. Mean­while, surrounding neighborhoods were growing increasingly concerned as the pastor of the church, Randy Phillips, continued to tout the outdoor facility as a multipurpose, state-of-the-art amphitheatre that would provide a venue for everything from jazz concerts to high school graduations to family movie nights. It was, as Phillips described it, the most significant piece of his "Dream City." (See "'Dream City' or Neighborhood Threat?," March 25.)

The Smoking Memo

Contacted this week, Graham declined to comment on the case. Guernsey said he made his determination based on what is and isn't allowed for churches in the city's land use code, and that a restrictive covenant agreement, signed last month, takes into consideration some of the neighborhood's concerns. As such, the amphitheatre would be limited to use for "worship services, weddings, funerals, and educational and musical presentations," as well as for "non-religious non-profit civic uses such as neighborhood meetings" and school graduations. No for-profit events can be held at the site, unless the proceeds benefit a nonprofit or other worthy cause.

As one neighborhood resident put it, Gra­ham, the case manager, "got hit between the eyes" with Guernsey's 2008 email, effectively washing away her months of work on the case. "I felt like she was doing a real good job," said Kim But­ler of the Hill Country Estates Homeown­ers Association. "It was very frustrating because the neighborhoods had done their work," he said, in years of neighborhood meetings and correspondence with the city. "Why Director Guernsey chose to offer an opinion at all, when no one on his staff would do so during the formal site plan review process, is THE question in this case for the neighborhoods," Butler wrote in a follow-up to a phone conversation.

PromiseLand has long insisted that many of its members live in the surrounding subdivisions and support the plan. On Tuesday, I asked a church official for the name of someone who would back up that claim. A few minutes later, Noemi Con­trer­as called to express her support for the development, along with the amphitheatre, and said she and her husband intend to meet with other residents. She said she wasn't aware that the opposing residents had been completely shut out of the city review process. "They should have an opportunity to speak up, to have an opportunity to say what's on their mind."

Meanwhile, Butler and other residents are arranging meetings with City Council members and the mayor. Before long, they and other southwest neighborhood groups should know their way around City Hall, perhaps well enough to carry some "no-growth" sway.

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suburban development, PromiseLand Church, neighborhood development, Hill Country Estates, Greg Guernsey, planning and development

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