Austin City Council passes Milestone’s first reading, Lack of two accesses halts full dais support

District 10 Austin City Council Member Alison Alter was a “no” vote on Aug. 8 when the dais considered its first hearing of a request by Milestone Community Builders to rezone a 42-acre tract at the end of Milky Way Drive to SF-6-CO, allowing the construction of 134 new townhomes and condominiums. LESLEE BASSMAN 

By LESLEE BASSMAN, Four Points News

With Council Members Alison Alter and Leslie Pool opposed, a developer’s plan to rezone a 42-acre tract at the end of River Place’s Milky Way Drive that would pave the way for 134 townhouse and condominium residences passed first muster by Austin City Council on Aug. 8. 

At issue is the project’s density and fit for the community.

The vote was taken on the proposal’s initial reading and was slated to be presented before the dais again at its Aug. 22 session, with a third and additional readings possible. But several council members and Milestone are said to want to postpone the next reading/s to Sept. 19, according to sources.

Project history

In 2015, Milestone Community Builders sought single family residence, or SF-1-CO, zoning for the tract, requesting 110 units before proposing a less dense project with 45 homes and a minimum lot size of 21,000 square feet. The development would be limited to less than 2,000 vehicle trips daily. Milestone further amended its zoning request to SF-6-CO on May 8, citing a maximum of 1,362 vehicle trips daily.

The tract was originally part of an 82-acre parcel owned by Berta Bradley who deeded a portion of the property, 40 acres, to The Autism Center Austin located on the site at 6507 River Place Blvd., Austin.

Currently zoned development reserve, the zoning requested by Milestone has been cited by local residents as being too dense, would cause a traffic issue in the already congested area, inhibit an emergency evacuation and add to the overcrowding of local schools. River Place representatives said residents favored a maximum density of 25 homes and SF-1 zoning with larger lots containing a minimum size of 30,000-square-feet each.

Throughout the process, City staff has recommended SF-1-CO zoning with a minimum lot size of 21,000-square-feet — double the minimum lot size that’s required for a typical SF-1 zoning district — because the topography of the parcel lends itself to challenges in construction and the larger lots would be consistent with Milky Way’s existing 24 homes.

In its filings, the developer said the tract could sustain up to 523 homes with 4,764 daily trips. A traffic impact analysis has not been required from Milestone since the proposal doesn’t exceed the 2,000 daily trip threshold for ordering the analysis.

Access to the project would be from the existing Milky Way Drive and no affordable housing will be included in the build.

Several months ago, a petition — that was supported by neighboring Austin Christian Fellowship, which supports the community — had been filed by River Place residents. The petition opposes the Milestone proposal and backs a zoning of SF-1-CO with a minimum lot size of 30,000-square-feet and a maximum of 25 homes. The petition was later deemed invalid.

The Milestone proposal was forwarded to the dais July 16, without a recommendation from the city’s Zoning and Platting Commission because the measure lacked an affirmative vote.

First hearing

At last week’s City Council meeting, Planning & Development Assistant Director Jerry Rusthoven stated SF-1-CO zoning was still appropriate for the tract because the property is in an environmentally sensitive area, not in an area identified for increased density and the proposed zoning “matches the existing development pattern along Milky Way Drive.”

City staff acknowledged the project poses questions of a wildfire risk for the community as well as connectivity issues.

Milestone attorney Jeff Howard said his client revised its zoning request to SF-6-CO, townhomes and condominiums, to offer the city lower-priced, more affordable options for rezoning the tract.

“This is an opportunity in a high opportunity zone to provide infill housing that (offers) all types of housing and… at a more attainable price,” Howard said.

Milestone agreed to abide by the proposed international wildland urban interface code that’s not currently in effect, but a standard that Howard said was more stringent than the city’s code and designed to “make things safer in this community” regarding wildfire threats. He said the property has an access easement across the Autism Center land that could connect to the fire lanes and driveways on the church property and connect further to Sitio Del Rio and River Place Boulevard, he said.

Habitat spoke in favor

Habitat for Humanity CEO Phyllis Snodgrass approached City Council in support of Milestone and said the developer offered to contribute $8,000 per home for the first 45 homes on the tract to the nonprofit organization aimed at providing affordable homes for residents.

“We desperately need more housing supply,” Snodgrass said. “We need it in different price points and we need it all over the community for all types of people in all parts of the city. Limiting density doesn’t help with this goal.”

Risk of wildfire

The community’s firewise director Randall Jamieson and Milky Way resident Brian Showers voiced concern over the high risk of wildfire in the community, with Showers advocating that any zoning other than SF-1 with 30,000-square-foot lot minimums would be “unsafe when it comes to fire and emergencies” and “irresponsible when it comes to our environment.” 

“Wildfire risk is high and, as a result, low density was key to zoning,” Showers said.

Access, safety

Showers’ neighbor, Brenda Langford, urged council members to focus on the neighborhood’s topography, with River Place situated on a high ridge and containing only one point of access; that is, onto RM 22222, a roadway that already services 1,146 homes.

“Milestone is asking us to increase that (service area) by 12-14 percent,” Langford said. “Yet they’re not going to give us any additional connectivity to get out of this area.”

Langford said most of the children in the subdivision have to cross the intersection of Milky Way and River Place Boulevard to get to the school, with the additional homes and traffic making the route more treacherous for bikers and pedestrians.

She also said Milestone hasn’t secured the necessary easements for an emergency accessway through church and school district-owned property, including River Place Elementary, needed to traverse to RM 2222. 

Resident Ted Gaunt cited the city’s subdivision code requiring new subdivisions to have at least two access streets and said the new Milestone neighborhood — with only a single access point down Milky Way — would have insufficient access in case of a wildfire or any other widespread emergency.

“From the far back (of River Place) it’s 12 minutes and 4.6 miles to drive (to the front entrance) uninterrupted, at the speed limit, with no lights and zero traffic,” Gaunt said. “That’s how long it takes under perfect conditions. And if you’re trying to evacuate and you’ve got multiple cars, you’re talking about many, many hours.”

Council vote 

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan asked city of Austin Fire Marshall Tom Vocke for clarity on the subdivision code. Vocke confirmed his department would require a secondary access for the subdivision since two accesses are required for subdivisions with more than 30 homes. 

“There are ways where we could amend that (requirement) in circumstances but here, with the wildfire risk and the access risk, we would not in this case offer an alternate method of compliance for that secondary access,” Vocke said.

Pool said she found the access and wildfire issues to be “compelling” while Alter questioned the sufficiency of the water flow to fight a wildfire or neighborhood home fires due to the added homes.  

“We have some real serious risks that were created by poor planning done a long time ago that didn’t create accesses out of these areas,” Alter said. “The preserves surround them so you can’t exit the areas, and when you add additional density, you raise that risk.”

Without a secondary access, Flannigan said Milestone would be limited to build only 30 homes on the tract. He asked Milestone to come back to Council with a conceptual plan of the project “to understand more specifically what’s being contemplated.”

Council also passed the first reading of a proposal to annex the new project into the Austin city limits.  

This story has been updated since it was first published reflecting Austin Christian Fellowship’s stand on the topic.

Although Milestone Community Builders is advertising a new development at the end of River Place’s Milky Way Drive, the density of the project and safety concerns continue to be addressed in Austin City Council hearings. LESLEE BASSMAN