* Update: December 12, 2014 *
Despite a laundry list of fumbles, missteps and improprieties that mark PSW's Lightsey 2 preliminary site plan, the City Planning Commission met on Tuesday, December 9th of this week, to review a South Austin development plan that has been fraught with controversy and debate. Whether or not the infill development company's Lightsey 2 preliminary plan warranted a rescission of the green-light to move forward, given to them on October 28th by the Planning Commission, was being taken into question on the basis that the applicant's preliminary application was later determined to have expired at the time Planning Commissioner voted to allow it to move forward on October 28, 2014.
Approximately two weeks after the affirmative action awarded to PSW by the Planning Commission on October 28th, Barton Oaks and South Lamar residents presented evidence that the Planning Commission had inadvertently and possibly unknowingly, voted on PSW's right to move forward with their Lightsey 2 proposal, despite the fact that their preliminary application had expired greater than 60 days prior to the October 28th, 2014 Planning Commission meeting.
At that time, BONA and SLNA neighbors' argument was strong enough to persuade Planning Commissioners Nuria Zaragoza and Stephen Oliver to rescind their original votes of October 28th.
On the evening of December 9th, 2014, it would take a full six members of the planning commission voting for rescission, to reverse the direction and momentum of the commission's original decision.
Unfortunately, only six voting commissioners were present on the evening of December 9th.
Because of this, and knowing that he and possibly two other commissioners would be absent on this evenings panel, Commissioner Nortey wrote this open letter and request from the airport, to his fellow commissioners:
I am sending this letter directly to you to post publicly and share with my fellow commissioners in order to avoid the County Attorney's admonition against "rolling quorums" and our own rules and procedures' prohibition on testifying before the Planning Commission.
In short, it looks like at least 3 commissioners will be absent tonight (including myself), and one will be running late, with another possibly absent due to trial. I think it would be best to postpone the discussion of the reconsideration of the approval of the Lightsey 2 Preliminary Plan based on new evidence until our next Planning Commission meeting.
Tonight, the Planning Commission is supposed to decide whether to reconsider Lightsey 2. Our rules require an affirmative vote from 6 Commissioners. Although I voted to approve the Lightsey 2 preliminary plan, and did not vote to reconsider this item, I do not think it is fair to the community stakeholders requesting reconsideration to have a commission of 5 or 6 members decide an action that require 6 votes.
I worry that if the request should fail due to a technicality, we would do a disservice to the community and erode public trust in government.
Although I do not like postponing this case any longer, I think at the very least a commission of 8 or 9 should take up this matter.
During our discussions regarding the South Austin Neighborhood Plan and Bike Master Plan our commission generally agreed that major Commission decisions that attract considerable public attention are usually best decided by a full Planning Commission in lieu of a mere quorum.
I realize that increasing the number of Commissioners present will increase the likelihood of reconsidering the case, but I don't think that should be relevant at all.
This case has already put a sour taste in the mouths of many due to a less than transparent, commonsensical, and straightforward process. I urge the Planning Commission to not make matters worse. Rather, we should err on the side of greater process, greater transparency, and greater dialogue. Even if the merits of this case ultimately do not change, I think a postponement would restore a modicum of trust to the public.
Sent from my iPhone
Despite Mr. Nortey's plea to his fellow commissioners, an initial vote was taken regarding whether the case should be postponed until a more reasonable representation of commissioners were present, and though four of the six commissioners voted to do so, commissioner Richard Hatfield voted against postponing.
Incredibly, wielding the most inexplicable chess move of the evening, Commissioner Stephen Oliver who had rescinded his vote at the prior PC meeting, arrived late for this meeting, but just in time to vote in conjunction with Commissioner Hatfield to proceed forward hearing the case, both with what appeared to be complete indifference to the wishes and recommendations put forth earlier in the day by their fellow colleague, Mr. Nortey.
Despite voting to proceed that evening with discussions on the Lightsey 2 case, Mr. Oliver again, ultimately voted along with four other Planning Commissioners who rescinded their votes previously cast on October 28th. Unfortunately for Barton Oaks and South Lamar neighbors, this was simply not enough to force a re-examination of the case, as a 5 to 1 (5 rescission votes to 1 against), was inadequate, playing by the rules of the Planning Commission, to move the needle in the direction of a closer look at this case.
Commissioner Richard Hatfield, for whatever his reasons, and despite city legal representatives failure to be able to explain to the Planning Commission the full scope and latitude that city code 25-4-151 gave them to make decisions concerning PSW's preliminary plan, was the sole commissioner who sided with the developer on this night.
Curiously, Mr. Hatfield felt compelled to lecture the congregation present this evening, stating that this case had simply gone on 'too long' and that even though both the developer and city staff had made some mistakes along the way, 'we just weren't gonna be able to fix-em all tonight.' Mr. Hatfield alleged that 'mistakes had been made by all parties concerned.' He went on to admonish that the neighbors and PSW 'just needed to somehow patch up differences between the two parties, as if some kind of big group hug was going to set this whole mess right.
Consequently, with his years of wisdom and discretion, despite the fact that this case reeks of something unjust and unsavory, Commissioner Hatfield took it upon himself solely, to shut down a further look into a case that may forever alter a quiet, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood that has existed in its current state for over half a century.
Somewhere in his line of reasoning, Mr. Hatfield was able to insult just about every Austin resident in the room, by stating that the Planning Commission had to do something to regain the trust of the community, given all that had transpired with this case. With those words, he cast his vote against rescission, and that was the end of it.
Unfortunately, Mr. Hatfield had a chance to regain our trust and he blew it... big time.
As it stands now, PSW stands poised to uproot a Heritage Tree which stands in the middle of their proposed road…a tree that has likely been around greater than two or more lifetimes of any single founding member of their company. In the process, if Lightsey 1 is any indicator of what can be expected, one of the last remaining urban forests outside of the Austin greenbelt stands high likelihood of great destruction if not elimination.
Lastly, if everything goes their way, PSW will connect a dangerous stretch of Lightsey road, to Aldwyche Drive…a move which will inherently decrease the overall safety of a currently bike-able and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood and worsen the dangers along the corresponding involved segment of Lightsey road.
Fortunately for the neighbors of Barton Oaks and South Lamar, there is growing interest in this story from the media, as it pertains to the lack of transparency and due process we've seen with this case.
Regardless of how he would have voted had he been there Tuesday night, Commissioner Nortey is to be commended for his attempt to do the right thing. The same must be said as well, for all of the commissioners who ultimately voted to give this case a second look.
* Stay Tuned for More to Come *
Where This Story Begins
The letter you’re about to read is simply a primer to something larger. It’s a story fueled by a city that is bursting at the seams, and two neighborhoods caught in the crosshairs between city government and a development company, both vying for their desired outcome. One thing is for certain; it opens the doors for a closer look into how decisions are being made by our City Representatives on our behalf, where potential new development is concerned.
On Tuesday, October 28th, over sixty residents from Barton Oaks and South Lamar Neighborhood associations showed up to the City of Austin Planning Commission meeting, which extended into the early morning hours of October 29th, all wearing neon yellow t-shirts and melded together in a unified coalition to take a stand against a proposed 'infill' development project which threatens the safety, quality of life and character of the neighborhoods in which they live.
BONA and SLNA are two neighborhoods which sit on the opposite sides of one of the last remaining urban forests in Austin, outside of the greenbelt. It's an area which has been largely undisturbed for well over half a century, despite the neighborhoods which surround it.
This four acre plot of land is the home to multiple Protected and Heritage trees, as well as a home to owls, foxes, opossums, raccoons, rabbits, woodpeckers and a variety of other wildlife unique only to heavily wooded environments.
In 2013, urban infill development company, PSW purchased this plot of land and began to formalize a proposal to build a 31 unit development of single-family attached dwellings with a plan to connect Aldwyche Drive to Lightsey Road.
Upon learning of PSW's purchase and their plan to develop the property, the Barton Oaks and South Lamar neighborhood associations began to pay close attention to what the company was proposing. As time passed, neighbors on both sides of this plot of land became more concerned for the reasons that follow:
1st Concern: Safety
The number one concern for both neighborhoods was and is safety. PSW has proposed to create vehicular connectivity through an area where it never before existed, via a 'through street' connection between Lightsey and Aldwyche Road. This was and is cause for considerable concern because the proposed connection between Aldwyche and Lightsey would intersect just a short distance beyond a dangerous, site-limited curve on Lightsey Road, well known in south Austin as 'Dead Man's Curve.' This is a well-known area where south Lamar neighbors frequently find that cars have either rolled or slid onto their properties as they fail to navigate this dangerous stretch of road.
One of the latest vehicles to fail this navigation was as recent as 4AM on September 12th, 2014, as shown in the photos below, taken by a neighbor along 'Dead Man's Curve.'
'Dead Man's Curve' is a blind curve and yet PSW is proposing to place an intersection, just beyond the curve, so they can connect their PSW-Lighsey 1 development on the North side of Lightsey, to their proposed New development (Lightsey 2) on the South side of Lightsey. As dangerous as the curve is currently, an intersection created just beyond the curve will be even more treacherous, as cars driving either direction on this stretch of road will certainly find themselves traversing this blind curve on occasion, only to encounter a car or cars at the intersection at a dead stop. It takes little imagination to realize that this will result in an increase in collisions along Lightsey road and possibly even fatalities at some point.
Even more interesting is the fact that intersection was disallowed onto Lightsey Road with PSW's Lightsey 1 development (currently underway) on just the opposite side of the road, adjacent to 'Dead Man's Curve,'... as safe stopping distances could never be proven along this dangerous stretch of south Austin road!
At 69 minutes and 49 seconds (69:49) into Part 2 of the October 28th Planning Commission proceedings, (see Planning Commission video link further below) speaking on behalf of the proposed intersection between Lightsey Road and Aldwyche Dr.
The proposed connection between Aldwyche to Lightsey Road will also divert heavy traffic off of Manchaca and Lamar through a neighborhood (Barton Oaks) which has no sidewalks, turning a currently safe, walk-able, bike-able neighborhood into a place where the safety of our children will have taken a backseat to development.
The e-mail below, from PSW to Austin Planning and Development Review Department (PDR) written on February 20th 2014, provides clear evidence that PSW doesn't believe it's Safe to connect Aldwyche Dr. and Lightsey Road... but says, "we were told we had to."
This is our neighborhood:
City staff has cited that there is pressure from Imagine Austin that is driving the demand that Aldwyche be connected to Lightsey... . but Imagine Austin touts an entirely different philosophy in their written creed.
Imagine Austin states their goal is "Creating sustainable neighborhoods that are child-friendly & support walking and bicycling" This project will do exactly the opposite.
In reality, forced vehicular connectivity between Lightsey and Aldwyche will do very little to decongest the massive traffic problem that exists along Manchaca and South Lamar... .. it will however, ruin the character and safety of a neighborhood where the residents residing there, 'bought-into that safety' and chose to live in a neighborhood where their children could run and play in the neighborhood streets without the concern of significant traffic. What message does it send to our children, when our city government makes decisions on behalf of developers, which inherently alter and decrease the safety of existing neighborhoods? What are our priorities as a community? Safety should be our Top priority.
2nd Concern: Loss of Heritage Trees
Directly in the middle of the proposed road that PSW has designed to connect Aldwyche to Lightsey, stands a 28 inch Live Oak... a Heritage tree that PSW wants to remove in the process of their development. The tree is completely healthy and there is no reason for it to be removed, except that it stands in the way of their 'for profit' development. Heritage tree #616 is pictured below.
Note there is an adult woman standing upright at the base of this magnificent tree. That's how large this tree is.
It should be noted that the City of Austin spent well of over $200, 000 dollars of our tax money, to move the Town Lake Boardwalk, just a matter of feet, to avoid having to remove a Heritage tree along that path... yet the City is consenting to allow the removal of Heritage Tree #616 from the middle of one of the few remaining pockets of urban forest within the city limits, outside of the greenbelt.
3rd Concern: City Staff Non-Compliance With City Code
South Austin is in trouble. The catchphrases "density" and "compact and connected" were used to sell Austinites on urbanizing the finite area of downtown Austin. Yet most citizens were not involved at all in the Imagine Austin process - it was driven by special interest groups and lobbyists, and they were the ones promoting density with the caveat that it would be in the downtown area.
At no time has there ever been a movement by the majority of residents in any area of Austin to phase out zoning and add density and commercial use to existing neighborhoods and yet the city is citing Imagine Austin to promote a city that is 'compact and connected,' regardless of whether existing neighborhoods are negatively impacted.
During the Tuesday October 28th City Planning Commission meeting, BONA and SLNA residents came prepared to show that neither the city staff nor applicant for development had followed the proper City Code in regard to the Lightsey 2 proposal, regarding at the minimum, the following points:
4th Concern: Legal Pressure from Within City Government
Sources tell us after the fact, that City Legal counsel contacted each and every member of the Planning Commission, prior to the October 28th Planning Commission meeting and urged them to vote in favor of approving the applicant's plan for this development.
Why is this? Could it be that the City is concerned that they will face legal action from the developer, as City Staff has informally given them a green-light, granting them waivers to proceed with their development, in lieu of a more rigid, Code Compliant protocol being required of the applicant/developer and enforced by City Staff?
5th Concern: Disregard of Input from the City of Austin Environmental Board
Due to the challenging nature of the topography and drainage concerns of the proposed 'Lightsey 2' development site, as well as the issue of a large Heritage tree which lies in the roadway of PSW's proposed development, the Planning Commission originally punted during their September 23rd Planning Commission meeting, and deferred any decision on this case, because the Planning Commission wanted input on this very complicated piece of property, from the Austin Environmental Board.
Consequently, on October 15th, 2014, the Environmental Board decided not to recommend PSW's plan AND went as far as saying that they (PSW) needed to go back to the drawing board and work with BONA and SLNA in collaboration and to also consider connectivity options other than vehicular, that would promote walking and bike connectivity.
*Please review Item 6-C, parts 1 and 2 of the Environmental Board meeting from October 15th in the link below to watch the entire proceedings.
Despite the Planning Commission having rescheduled the September 23rd Planning Commission meeting until the Environmental Board could weigh-in and give their recommendation, and Despite the Environmental Board's admonition Not to Recommend PSW's proposed development, the Planning Commission gave PSW the green light to proceed with their project. To say that residents of BONA and SLNA were dumbfounded and dismayed after hearing the Planning Commission's decision, despite a polar opposite recommendation from the Environmental Board, is a gross understatement and a travesty.
6th Concern: Inadequate Infrastructure for Water Management and Mitigation
It has become more and more apparent that south Austin simply doesn't have adequate infrastructure to deal with storm water run-off and manage water quality from such run-off.
Just recently, City Planner, Mark Walters spoke at the Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Sub-Committee Briefing and referenced the 549 new South Lamar dwellings coming our way and stated: "The rush to development has already caused flooding problems... not to mention water quality issues from new developments "This area suffers from an undersized, collapsed and nonexistent storm water infrastructure and "neighbors in the area have reported worse flooding with the increase in development".
Liberal 'fee-in-lieu' approvals by city government have allowed developers to avoid building adequate infrastructure with their developments, to manage storm water run-off, and to simply pay a fee up front which largely decreases their responsibility to incorporate adequate mitigation systems along with their developments.
PSW has asked to pay 'fee-in-lieu' rather than develop a complete onsite water mitigation system within their proposed Lightsey 2 development, despite all of the problems we are seeing in the South Lamar area because of rampant, overextended development which has over-taxed the existing infrastructure.
At the end of the October 28th Planning Commission meeting, which actually wrapped up around 1:30AM on October 29th, City Legal verbally gave 'her' blessing that all Code had been appropriately followed by City Staff and PSW and that all the rules had been appropriately followed... .when in fact, it is blatantly obvious to anyone who watches the proceedings on tape from this night, that nothing could be further from the truth.
It should also be noted that almost every High Level City Staff Member that deals with granting approval of proposed construction and development in the City of Austin, including City Legal representation, were present until the meeting closed around 1:30am. It is our understanding that this is almost never the case and is highly unprecedented. Why did high-level City Staff and City Legal show up and 'circle the wagons' the way they did, staying until the wee hours of the morning, if everything was all above board concerning this case? That is a question for further investigation in our opinion.
The citizens that make up BONA and SLNA are not anti-development. We are not so naïve to believe that the property in question will not be developed... by someone and possibly, PSW. BONA and SLNA have both extended the opportunity to work with PSW towards a win-win situation that will keep our children and our neighborhoods safe and maintain some semblance of the character of the neighborhood we bought into, yet PSW has declined to work with us at all. They have instead, laid out their proposed plan and essentially said 'this is how it's going to be.'
BONA resident Jim Whitliff, a land development consultant with 30+ years experience drew up and offered no less than two Alternative development plans for PSW to consider in their Lightsey 2 development. Both Plans save Heritage tree #616 and both offer walking and biking connectivity (in Keeping with Imagine Austin's Vision) as an alternative to vehicular connectivity and give PSW the exact number of units they are proposing to build, based on their preliminary proposal. They are in fact much safer plans than what PSW is proposing. However, PSW has declined to consider either one of them and has left both BONA and SLNA completely out of the loop where collaboration regarding our own neighborhoods are concerned.
It should be noted that Danette Chimenti, Chair of the Planning Commission, voted against the PSW proposal, as did Secretary, Jean Stevens. We commend both for having the courage to do what was right; despite the obvious pressure that they may have been under from City Legal and other less visible entities, to simply rubber-stamp the approval of the proposed development.
BONA and SLNA residents are currently in the process of requesting that the City Planning Commission rescind the decision that was rendered in favor of the developer on October 28th, for reasons described above, as well as others not mentioned here, for brevity's sake.
This is a story in motion and it will continue to unfold over the coming weeks and possibly months. Additional information will be added here as it comes to light in the near future.
For Media interest, please email:TravestyInAustin@gmail.com
* Update: November 20, 2014 *
Below is some of what Elizabeth Pagano
Tuesday, November 18, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano
Planning Commission to revisit Lightsey 2
Despite still being in the early stages of development, PSW Real Estate's Lightsey 2 project continues to provoke outrage in South Austin. And despite approving the preliminary plan at an earlier meeting, the Planning Commission will now take another look at it and consider reversing that decision.
Last week, Planning Commissioners took the unusual step of opening the case for reconsideration at their next meeting. Last month, commissioners approved the development's preliminary plan after a lengthy discussion.
The move came after several neighbors spoke during the commission's citizen's communication about the project at 1805 Lightsey Road. They explained that they had new information not considered at the last meeting. The neighborhood contends that the preliminary plan application had expired by the time the case reached the Planning Commission in July, and should not have been considered.
Antonio Gonzalez spoke on the behalf of the Barton Oaks and South Lamar Neighborhood Associations at Tuesday's meeting. He said the preliminary plan had already been automatically denied because it was filed on July 1, 2013. The review period, even with extensions, ended on July 9, 2014, according to Gonzalez.
The argument was persuasive enough to get Commissioners Nuria Zaragoza and Oliver to rescind their votes.
Oliver explained that he would like to hear more details about the case, and noted that the first presentation was "like listening to a legal case."
Zaragoza also rescinded her vote, saying the expired permit was new information.
Neighbor and development consultant Jim Witliff pointed out that the commissioners approved the preliminary plan under "pretty unusual circumstances" at their last meeting.
South Lamar development will also be the topic of two separate items from City Council Member Laura Morrison at this Thursday's Council meeting.
The Lightsey 2 plan will be discussed, again, at the Dec. 9 meeting of the Planning Commission. At that time, the full Planning Commission will decide whether it will reverse its original approval. First, however, two-thirds of the commission must approve the decision to rescind or amend the earlier vote.
Ms. Pagano's full article can be found here: www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2014/11/lightsey-2-opponents-get-second-chance/
Many south Austin residents are concerned about the seemingly unbridled development and how this explosive growth in south Austin is affecting everything from storm water run-off, flooding, overcrowding and the threat of destroying the character of the neighborhoods in which they live, as detailed in the following KXAN news segment.
Below are some of the responses to the previous news segment. They give some sense of how the massive growth here in South Austin is being received by some:
For many BONA and SLNA neighbors who attended the October 28th Planning Commission meeting, the biggest concern they have is safety. "We're grateful that Planning Commissioners took the step to open the case for reconsideration. This proposed development is still a huge safety issue for our neighborhood," said one of the moms in attendance. "We bought a house in this neighborhood over ten years ago specifically because was safe and away from a lot of traffic. I strolled the neighborhood with my baby and met our neighbors that way. Now our child runs, bikes and rides his scooters in the street... because kids can do that in this neighborhood." People don't understand how important that is." "I'm not sure whether the city really understands that we have no sidewalks in this neighborhood... aside from that, I'm not sure the developer really cares."
On another note, we have gotten some feedback from at least one Planning Commission member, who indicated that he felt the EV Board simply encouraged the developer to be more creative'... but that is clearly not what they said, according to the document that follows.
Below, find the written motion from the Environmental Board from October 15th, 2014.
The Environmental Board clearly and unanimously gave the Planning Commission Recommendations (see the motion below) concerning the property, including considering other options for development, including a change to SF-6 zoning. As you can see, a Friendly Amendment was also offered to "Consider alternative methods of connectivity that include pedestrian and bicycle modes of access to assist in implementing the recommended improvements listed previously."
The EV Board's Recommendations, unfortunately, were summarily ignored by the Planning Commission in the early morning hours of October 29th.
Though not necessarily a legal term, Oxford Dictionaries online defines Recommendation by the following:
'A suggestion or proposal, as to the best course of action, especially one put forth by an authoritative body.'
It is still very puzzling as to why the Planning Commission requested input from the Environmental Board (an authoritative body), but ignored their suggestion or proposal, as to the best course of action regarding the plan to develop the property in question.
As it stands now, the Lightsey 2 plan will be discussed, again, at the Dec. 9, 2014 meeting of the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission will then decide the next twist and turn that this story will take.
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