Then There's This: Overlooking the Springs

A planned subdivision and code conflict spawn enviro headache

Barton Springs
Barton Springs (Photo by Jana Birchum)

At first blush, a bid to build nine duplexes up the hill from Zilker Park sounds like a perfect infill project for a city trying to densify its urban core. In the same vein, neighborhood opposition to the plan could easily be dismissed in some circles as a classic case of – that awful catchall word – NIMBYism.

But, as is often the case, development proposals with broad opposition are seldom ever black and white, and the Blue Bonnet Hills project is anything but.

The proposed subdivision of just over three acres on Robert E. Lee Road is currently under city staff review, after developers unsuccessfully tried to upzone the property last spring. In its previous short life, the case came before the Planning Commission on a valid petition from neighbors. Developers had then sought to build 18 duplexes, or 36 units, but commissioners narrowly rejected the plan on a 5-4 vote.

Even in its scaled-down form, the biggest problem with the proposal – not just in the opinion of neighbors, but among some city staff – is the potential environmental risk to Barton Springs. The property sits on a sharp slope leading directly to Little Zilker Creek, which flows into Barton Springs, home of federally protected salamanders. And because of the site's proximity to the Springs and its 1,500-foot distance from the Edwards Aqui­fer recharge zone, staff had initially assumed the development would be subject to stricter regulation under the Save Our Springs Ord­inance, which would effectively pull the plug on the project. The developer, Steven Radke and his engineer, Jerry Perales, took issue with staff's assumptions, arguing that runoff from the site flows into Lady Bird Lake, not Barton Springs. Additionally, they pointed out that the nearby Zilker Terrace condos were allowed to be built under Urban Water­shed standards. Internal emails obtained by Zilker resident Jeannie DeFrese reveal a lengthy tug-of-war between the developers and city staff, as well as disagreement among staff members, over which development standards to apply to the Blue Bonnet Hills project. "Why was the site directly adjacent to us ... Zilker Terrace, not treated in the same manner?" Radke asked staff in one email. "It was permitted and developed in 2010/2011. They are in the contributing zone over the [Edwards Aquifer] but were not forced to comply with SOS. Their drainage flows mimic our proposed [flows]."

That forced staff to reexamine the Zilker Terrace process as well as other development projects along South Lamar. That in turn uncovered some internal confusion over the land development code that green-lighted some projects under more relaxed rules.

Finally, over a period of several months, city staff ultimately agreed that less stringent Urban Watershed rules would apply to Blue Bon­net. Last month, before the holiday break, city environmental officer Chuck Lesniak told the Environmental Board – which had requested a briefing even though it wasn't scheduled to hear the case – that he determined the development wouldn't be held to SOS standards based on previous city decisions on nearby developments, including Zilker Terrace. The mere mention of Zilker Terrace reminded Board Member Mary Ann Neely how much she loathes that development, a sentiment shared by neighbors because of the flooding problems it created during and since its construction. "I'm stunned that it was even allowed," Neely said. "It just makes me so frustrated and angry that that happened."

Environmental leaders, who appeared before the board after being contacted by Zilker residents, said staff can't arbitrarily decide to ditch SOS regs on Blue Bonnet Hills just because Zilker Terrace wasn't held to SOS standards. "That mistake in interpretation doesn't change the law," said SOS Alliance's Bill Bunch. "We're not talking about shutting down development in Central Austin and promoting density where we want to promote it," he said, responding to oft-repeated claims from detractors that SOS is designed to stop growth. "We've got 2,500 units going up just around the corner on Barton Springs and South Lamar; now please don't be telling me that good environmental policy is to pump up density right on top of Barton Springs. I'm offended by that." Like­wise, attorney Brad Rockwell pointed out the irony of the city spending millions of bond dollars to acquire water-quality-protection land 15 miles from Barton Springs, while giving a pass to developers to build a subdivision just 1,500 feet from the recharge zone.

At press time Wednesday, the Environ­ment­al Board was scheduled to hear another staff update on the project, such as the findings of a dye-tracing test. Additionally, Council Member Laura Morrison said she intends to draft a resolution for next week's Council agenda.* She's not sure yet what it will ask for; she just wants this code confusion fixed. The more she looks at the case, the more questions she has about how staff arrived at its decision. "First they're emphatic that SOS applies, and then all of a sudden there's a line drawn in the sand, and all of a sudden SOS doesn't apply," she said. "If they're reading the code one way, sort of loosely interpreting it, and there's a piece of the code that says if there's a conflict in the code about whether SOS applies, then the stricter regulations apply. Even if staff has administratively gone down what I would consider the wrong path, we still need to correct that."

*UPDATE: Council Member Morrison said she will defer adding a resolution to the Jan. 23 agenda until she's studied the matter further.

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