River Place zoning dispute delays plans for autism center

ZAP hearing postponed until Feb.

Four Points News

A River Place zoning dispute could possibly jeopardize Jonathan and Polly Tommey’s dream of opening a center for adults with autism.

“We’re in a sticky situation where we can’t really move forward,” said Jonathan Tommey. “We wanted this to move a lot faster than it has in the last year and a half.”

The Tommeys moved to River Place from the U.K. in 2012 with the mission of opening a state-of-the-art center where adults with autism could live and work. They learned first-hand about autism after their son, Billy, was diagnosed with the disorder at the age of 2.

In 2007, while in the U.K., Polly Tommey founded The Autism Trust, a non-profit organization with the mission of providing vocational, educational, wellness, and semi-independent residential programs for individuals with autism.

In early 2015, this 40 acres was gifted to the Autism Trust by longtime landowner Berta Bradley, who also had a son with autism and said that before her husband died, he told her he wanted his ranch to be used as a place for people with autism.

After the success of The Autism Trust in the U.K., the Tommeys were awarded an exceptional visa to build the same center of excellence in the U.S. They chose Austin because of the warm community atmosphere and the many autism experts who live here.

In early 2015, the Tommeys’ dream came one step closer to reality when they were gifted 40 acres of land in River Place near Austin Christian Fellowship Church. The land was donated by longtime landowner Berta Bradley, who also had a son with autism and said that before her husband died, he told her he wanted his ranch to be used as a place for people with autism.

Bradley also made plans to sell an adjacent 42-acre parcel to Milestone Community Builders to be used for new residential construction. That parcel is located next to The Autism Trust land, at the end of Milky Way Drive. On June 23, 2015, Milestone, under contract to buy the land, requested a zoning change with the city to SF2, which would allow the construction of 110 homes, with a density of three homes per acre. The developer planned to designate 14.9 acres as drainage and green space.

But residents who live along Milky Way Drive are opposed to the SF2 zoning, arguing it would allow too high of density of homes, greatly increasing traffic and hurting property values. Homes on Milky Way Drive are zoned SF1 with a conditional overlay that allows only one home per acre.

The zoning dispute has resulted in the zoning case being postponed by the city’s Zoning and Platting Commission eight times since 2015. The hearing was recently scheduled to take place on Jan. 17 but was postponed again to Feb. 7 but that could change because it is a school holiday.

At a standstill

The Autism Trust site currently features a six-bedroom residential property with three adults with autism living on-site, one of whom is the Tommeys’ son, Billy, who is now 20.  The site also features 3 miles of nature trails; and chickens, ducks and goats.

The Tommeys’ future plans include the creation of a vocational and life skills program for adults with autism. Participants would learn skills in horticulture, animal husbandry, arts and crafts and more. He said young people with autism often have few choices once they exit the school system.


“It’s when they leave school that they have nowhere to go,” Tommey said. “Our facility will be catering to those adults as they leave education to come out and do vocational and life skill development.”

They also envision a future residential program, featuring multiple single-story, one- to two-bedroom cottages, each with their own kitchenette, bathroom and living space. Depending on their level of independence, residents could enjoy semi-independent living. A live-in member of staff would be available for those who need constant care.

But the zoning dispute has put all of those dreams on hold for now.

“We can’t do anything until zoning has been approved,” Tommey said.

A valuable offer

Tommey said as part of the negotiations, Milestone has even agreed to donate the construction, time and labor in order to build several of the facilities on The Autism Trust site. The facilities, such as a café and art gallery, could be used as a future revenue stream for the non-profit.

“It’s something Milestone wants to do to help us,” Tommey said. “They shouldn’t be seen as the bad group. They’re (willing to) put millions of dollars’ worth of development back into The Autism Trust which is a lifeline to us, especially in the early days.”

Tommey said it is a once in a lifetime opportunity because it would save the non-profit millions of dollars in fundraising efforts and time. His fear is that if Milestone’s zoning request is not approved, the company will back out of the project; delaying the Tommeys’ plans back by years.

“(Keeping) the SF1 will stop The Autism Trust center from being built essentially because Milestone may back out because it’s not worth it financially,” Tommey said.

Tommey said while he understands the concerns of residents on Milky Way, he doesn’t agree with them.

“They’ve got houses worth $1.5 million and that’s what they want at the end of the street,” Tommey said. “I can understand that but I can also oppose that because it means our center could be in jeopardy. It’s not all about us as individuals, it’s about the people around us and helping others. It’s why we’re here. Especially when it helps people who are less fortunate.”

Tommey said there are 88,000 adults with autism living in Texas with very few services or adequate living facilities. He said he hopes that some agreement can be worked out soon. In the meantime, the Tommeys are still working to get their message out. They recently launched a new website www.autismcenteraustin.com.

“People need to come together,” Tommey said. “There needs to be a compromise somehow.”