By CASSIE MCKEE
Four Points News
Following a recommendation by the Austin Zoning and Platting Commission to deny a developer’s zoning request that would allow the construction of 82 homes in River Place, the leaders of Austin Christian Fellowship hosted a town hall meeting on March 6 to seek public input on the issue, which has drawn widespread opposition in the community.
The zoning case, which was scheduled to go before Austin City Council on March 23, was postponed to the May 4 council meeting at the request of the developer, MileStone Community Builders.
Will Davis Jr., founding pastor of ACF, opened the town hall meeting by giving some history as to the church’s involvement. ACF property is adjacent to the 82 acres of land that was owned by longtime land owner Berta Bradley. Bradley is under contract to sell 42 of the acres to MileStone for the proposed housing development and she donated the remaining 40-acre tract to the Autism Trust in order to build a center for autism.
Bradley has a grown son with autism.
Davis said that as he and other church leaders got to know Bradley and her son more than a decade ago, they began thinking of ways they could help them and other families like them. A few years ago, they met the founders of the Autism Trust, who had come to Austin to start an autism center, and introduced them to Bradley.
“Our interest in this (autism) development happening is not because we’re fans or not fans of MileStone. It’s not because we want to see beautiful land with houses on it,” said Davis. “It is strictly because we would be thrilled to see something that could serve people (with autism) and their families. That’s why we supported this from day one.”
While no one in the community has publicly objected to the proposed autism center, there has been widespread opposition to the housing proposal on the adjacent tract, primarily due to concerns about the increased traffic it would create and the strain it would put on the already over-crowded neighborhood. MileStone representatives have said the company will put millions of dollars into the autism center to get it up and running as long as it gets the zoning it needs to build the housing development.
Davis said he understands why River Place residents are opposed to the proposed housing development.
“I want to try to diffuse the story that’s being circulated out there that somehow ACF is critical of people who don’t want this to happen,” he said.
Sally Banta, who lives on Milky Way Boulevard, attended the town hall and said she was upset that pastors of ACF would not sign a petition in opposition to the MileStone development. She said when she and others approached church leaders in 2015, they were told that the church wanted to remain neutral; however, the church later hired a real estate attorney, John Joseph, who spoke in support of the housing development at the Feb. 21 ZAP meeting.
“In order to achieve a valid petition, we needed ACF’s signature,” Banta said. “At that point we scheduled an appointment to meet with Ed Frazier, the executive pastor of ACF. We met with him and asked for Will Davis to sign the valid petition. The church refused to sign, wishing to remain neutral and not get involved; nothing could be farther from the truth as the next 16 months unfolded,” she said.
Amy Brossette, a realtor who lives in River Place, is a member of ACF. She was also upset with the church attorney’s comments at the ZAP meeting.
“The thing that really disappointed me at the zoning meeting was I felt like you were trying to shove this zoning down my throat,” Brossette said. “I left disappointed in my church. I don’t support getting the MileStone project of 82 homes shoved down my throat because you and the (founders of the Autism Trust) want that.”
Davis was again asked if he would sign the community’s petition, which would then require a supermajority of city council members to pass. Davis said he would not.
“We want the Autism Trust to happen,” Davis said. “My understanding is if this goes to a super council it will not pass. Our interest is in the Autism Trust. If MileStone doesn’t happen, the autism center doesn’t happen. That’s my understanding, that if the petition gets passed, this thing is done.”
Resident Mike Reese asked why the church couldn’t organize a funding drive to help fund the autism center or pay for it itself.
“Our strategy has been to partner with people,” Davis said. “We don’t have any expertise to do this well. We try to find partners who do this really well. We have not felt led or called to do something on our own.”
River Place HOA President Scott Crosby said he had questions about whether there is an actual agreement in place between ACF and MileStone.
“I’ve heard all along that there is an agreement between ACF and MileStone,” Crosby said. “Now I’m not sure there is. Is there?”
Joseph, the church’s attorney, said there is no agreement in place yet between the church and MileStone and that his strategy all along has been that if the developer does not agree to certain terms regarding the autism center, the church will withdraw its support prior to the city council public hearings.
“(MileStone) must permit, design, engineer, construct and operate that autism center,” Joseph said. “They have to enter into an agreement with us.”
Crosby said he met with MileStone representatives a week before the ZAP hearing and they gave a different impression of what they are agreeing to.
“That is not what they think they’re committing to,” Crosby said. They stood up at ZAP. They’ve committed to do a 6,000 square-foot building, and they are going to fund infrastructure, which is an undefined term.”
Joseph said he is confident in his strategy.
“If I don’t get everything I want, they don’t get our support,” Jospeh said. “If we don’t give them the wastewater easement, they’re history. We’ve got lots of ways of controlling our position. I feel very erconfident in the position we’ve created.”
Since the town hall meeting, there have not been any new developments, according to ACF Executive Pastor Ed Frazier.
“At this point, there isn’t anything new to report regarding any MileStone agreement,” Frazier said.
He said he appreciated the opportunity to hear the community’s concerns.
“ACF’s goal in hosting the recent town hall meeting was to provide a forum for our neighbors to share their perspectives on the rezoning applications,” Frazier said. “I believe we accomplished that goal, and I appreciate the men and women who joined the conversation.”