North Austin neighborhood associations have really been delivering some first-class development obstruction, aided and abetted, of course, by the Zoning and Platting Commission. As I’ve explained before, ZAP is very much the Planning Commission’s JV team, in more than one way.
Last night it was actually a member of the varsity team, Fayez Kazi, whose plans to subdivide his 23,500 square foot lot into two 11-12,000 square foot lots has drawn howls from surrounding neighbors. They don’t want to see smaller lots and they really don’t want to see “flag lots,” where one of the two units is in the back (connected to the street by a long driveway that runs past the front unit).
City staff happily recommended a variance to create the flag lot, but a bunch of neighbors signed a petition against it. Because more than 20% of the property owners within 200 feet of the property signed, it became a “valid petition,” meaning that the subdivision cannot be approved unless it receives a 3/4 majority from a land use commission.
Considering how innocuous the request is, I think it’s likely that this variance would have gotten a 3/4 majority if it had been heard by the Planning Commission. However, PC only handles properties that are within neighborhood plans, something that this part of town lacks. Instead, the case went before ZAP, where it went down in flames, not even getting a majority of the commission.
While the neighbors sprinkled in some concerns about flooding (rejected by city staff), the chief concern expressed was about “neighborhood character.” Robert Meadows, the president of the Walnut Creek Neighborhood Association (not to be confused with the Northeast Walnut Creek NA), said “it’s difficult to compromise on a flag lot” because allowing one would establish a precedent for city staff to allow more in the neighborhood.
He stressed that the neighborhood association was not “reflexively negative” to development and density, noting that they had supported two recent projects on N. Lamar Blvd: the North Austin Muslim Community Center and a 277-unit apartment building by Larry Peel.
However, said Meadows, Kazi’s property is in a “very particular, large-lot single family residence area.”
Other neighbors similarly denounced the destruction of the area’s character. Here are some examples from the case’s backup:
One neighbor urged ZAP to consider the “human cost” of the variance, arguing that the two smaller lots would lead to increased property values, property taxes and the inability of current residents to pass their homes down to their descendants.
Ron Thrower, Kazi’s agent, emphasized that many other lots in the area have been subdivided over the years, and that there was even one lot (gasp!) as small as 7,600 square feet. The lots in green, he noted, were all platted under 15,000 square feet.
Nevertheless, Commissioner Ann Denkler (Leslie Pool’s appointee), said that she had talked with the residents and reported, “They don’t want to see any lot under 20,000 square feet.”
As usual, most of the discussion, even from the developer’s side, focused on whether the proposal was in line with neighborhood character, not how it fit into the city’s long-term goals on environmental protection, mobility and affordability. But Thrower did throw this in:
“Human cost? Let’s talk about when is Austin going to understand that if you cannot take a half acre of land and divide it into two lots, where are you going to be able to do this? You guys approve thousands of lots every year in the (Extraterritorial Jurisdiction). All of that sprawl is coming at significant cost. We’re trying to bring the opportunity for another family to live approximately three miles from the city core.”
Kazi also spoke, saying that one of the leaders of the petition drive had “propagated scary rhetoric on social media” about the subdivision, including “this is how slums are created.”
I have not been able to verify those comments because I don’t have access to the private Facebook and Nextdoor groups that they were made on. I am trying to see if I can get access to them.
ZAP voted down the variance, 4-6-1. The only four in support were Bruce Evans (Flannigan), Abigail Tatkow (Casar), Sunil Lavani (Troxclair) and Nadia Barrera-Ramirez (Adler). Jim Duncan (Alter) abstained.
Unlike its zoning recommendations, which Council can disregard, ZAP’s denial of the variance is final. The project is dead.
This is one of many cases that displays the monumental blunder on the part of Delia Garza and Pio Renteria in appointing their ZAP commissioners. Both of their appointees have been reliable votes against more housing. Meanwhile, as Ann Kitchen has become more friendly to creating housing during her term, her ZAP appointee, David King, always votes with opposition to development.
If Renteria is serious about pursuing a pro-housing agenda on Council, he needs to appoint a new ZAP commissioner when Dustin Breithaupt’s term is up next month. The term of Garza’s appointee, Ana Aguirre, does not end until 2021. King’s term is also up next month, but I suspect Kitchen will keep him around.
While all of the political focus is on Planning Commission, it’s really ZAP that, at least from the perspective of most Council members, badly needs to be fixed.
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