The Austin Chronicle

Then There's This …: Sound and Light

Outdoor Music Venue + Electric Rate Increase = Sensory Overload

By Amy Smith, January 27, 2012, News

Say you were rattled awake one Sunday morning by the amplified strains of "How Great Thou Art" issuing from an immense amphitheater in your neighborhood. There's truly nothing like the jolt of a high C to start your day. That potential scenario may seem preposterous (An amphitheater? Not in my backyard!), but variations of that sound-intrusive theme have become recurring nightmares for dozens of Southwest Austin residents who live near the future home of "Dream City." That is the site of the new campus of PromiseLand West church, currently under construction along Highway 71. The rolling 53-acre tract is ringed by three subdivisions tucked off the crowded roadway leading to the Hill Country.

Unsurprisingly, the amphitheater is the single most contentious feature of the entire $25 million campus. And as luck would have it, the state-of-the-art 1,000-plus-seat outdoor music venue will be the first structure out of the ground. Some city officials are now trying to figure out how such a complex and controversial project made it through a multilayered review process with virtually no public input. Sure, religious-assembly developments are granted a good deal of leeway under the city's land-use code; many churches only require administrative approval for building permits and such, which is how PromiseLand obtained the green light on Dream City last year. A neighborhood group was subsequently denied a request to appeal the decision (see "Point Austin: Suburban Nightmare," Nov. 18, 2011). That's when various neighborhood leaders began knocking on the City Council office doors.

Given that two neighborhood groups – Hill Country Estates and Covered Bridge – are considering their next steps, the city's legal staff will provide City Council with a background briefing today (Thursday, Jan. 26) in executive session. Council Member Laura Morrison said she requested the briefing to determine if there were any options available to resolve the logjam between the church and its neighbors. The most critical point of disagreement centers on the church's claim that it's not required to apply for a sound permit because commercial entertainment venues and religious assemblies are not bound by the same rules.

Promises, Promises

Neighborhood groups counter the letter-of-the-law argument based on statements made by the church's attorney, Steve Metcalfe, during a packed neighborhood meeting earlier this month in Oak Hill. (Metcalfe did not respond to a Chronicle request for comment.) Under the terms of a restrictive covenant with the city, the church agreed not to operate the amphitheater as a for-profit venue, with the exception of occasional charitable benefits. But according to residents who attended the neighborhood meeting, Metcalfe claimed that the church's status as a charity allows PromiseLand to benefit from the profits generated from performances at the amphitheater. Clearly, there are a raft of issues council will need to hash out before the dust settles on Dream City. 

Also today, Morrison will introduce a resolution that calls for a thorough vetting of the city's policy on administrative appeals in land-use decisions. "After looking at the appeal process from a more general standpoint, it became clear that we have inconsistencies and potential problems in a lot of different areas," she said, adding that the PromiseLand case was the red flag that precipitated the resolution. Indeed, if one church is allowed to build an outdoor performance theatre in one neighborhood, what's to stop another church from doing the same thing in someone else's neighborhood? "From my perspective," Morrison said, "it really doesn't make sense to put an outdoor music venue that's going to have multiple and frequent events in the middle of a neighborhood."

Kim Butler of Hill Country Estates said residents' grievances are aimed directly at the city, not the church. "They simply want to do what they want to do, and have been willing to do whatever it takes to get it," he said of the church drivers. "Blaming them for this outcome would be akin to blaming a 5-year-old for wanting candy. Our issue is with the city ... and the manner in which the administrative review process was managed."

Electric Shock

On another high-voltage front, the highly unpopular Austin Energy rate case isn't going away anytime soon. Electric Utility Commission Chair Phillip Schmandt, who was among the 4-3 panel majority favoring the proposal, says he's hopeful a middle ground can be achieved in order to secure approval from the Council, which has already signaled its distaste for the existing plan. The next public hearing is set for Feb. 2, and more hearings will follow after that. On Saturday (Jan. 28), Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole will host a "community conversation" on the rate proposal at Austin Community College's Riverside Campus (see "Civics 101"). According to a press release, the discussion will focus on the adverse impact the rate increase would have on low-income residents, public schools, houses of worship ... and maybe even a certain house-of-worship amphitheater in Southwest Austin.

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