By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
For more than six years, residents who live in the 25 homes on Milky Way Drive in River Place have voiced their concerns about proposed development at the end of their street but time has come for construction to begin at the 42 acres to make room for some 68 housing units.
The developer MileStone Community Builders is prepping the site at the end of the cul-de-sac on Milky Way Drive with a construction office and its first roads.
The long road to get to this point has included twists and turns.
Since late summer of 2015, Milky Way neighbors have been in discussions, have signed petitions, and have voiced concerns about the proposed development on the open land.
The concerns cited safety issues mainly stemming from added traffic which, for example, would affect children walking to nearby River Place Elementary. Concerns were cited about adding density to the community and how that impacts emergencies such as potential wildfire. The site is located in undeveloped land and River Place sits in an area that has high potential risk for wildfire, according to fire officials.
But MileStone was approved in fall of 2019 to build a housing project and after several key maneuvers, the final site plan was set.
“It has been eye opening at how unexpected the city process has been through this whole thing,” said Brian Showers, resident of Milky Way Drive. “I thought it was a straightforward, logical process. It has been anything but. We found out how much large corporations and lobbyists affect things.”
The 42-acre site at the end of Milky Way Drive was rezoned from Development Reserve (DR) to Townhouse and Condominium Residence (SF-6) for single-family condos with conditions. Austin City Council voted in favor of it on October 31, 2019.
Austin City Council put two different caps on the project that would restrict density: One regarded a restrictive covenant on the number of homes that could be built on the land, and the other was a conditional overlay to not exceed 1,200 vehicle trips per day on Milky Way Drive.
“Coming out of zoning, the city council wanted multiple layers of resistance to make sure something stuck but the developer sidelined both,” Showers said. City planning staff and attorneys have left them off the hook on both of those, he added.
MileStone had to measure current traffic to see how much more traffic could be created by their development.
According to Showers, the developer finagled the conditional overlay restriction with multiple traffic counts. MileStone measured the traffic multiple times and “cherry picked the results to submit,” he said.
A neighborhood traffic analysis was taken on March 13, 2019 and indicated that the development could not be more than around 45 homes. But that one was not used. The developer ordered several traffic counts to be done.
The conditional overlay – which was meant to mitigate any damage of wildfires or other disasters – says the developer has to do a new traffic measure at the time of the site plan.
But the submitted traffic count was done nearly six months prior to the submission of the site plan, and pandemic-related guidelines helped the developer skirt that mandate.
The developer measured traffic not long after the project’s rezoning was approved by council. Traffic was measured November 2019, December 2019 and March 2020, when the pandemic shut down began, Showers said.
“Many on the street were in lockdown and traffic patterns were not normal that week (in March 2020),” Showers said. “It (the pandemic) cut trips per home by 25% compared to what was seen before, to approximately 12 trips per home.”
“The city at first was not going to let them use that (March 2020) traffic study and was going to make them do another one to get an accurate traffic count during a normal traffic period,” Showers said. But MileStone challenged it and the city backed down saying they could “use this traffic study but just this one time, and that they were not going to get away with it again,” he added.
The site plan MileStone is now using was filed November 2, 2020. The MileStone paperwork indicates that 68 units will be built.
“They did that traffic study six months before they submitted the site plan,” Showers said.
Conditional overlay says they (traffic studies) are supposed to be done at the time of the site plan. Showers said this one was not.
But the Milky Way group heard from the city that the developer was using a “pandemic emergency measure” which relaxes rules and cannot expire.
According to the city, the traffic counts do not have to be adjusted for the pandemic, Showers said.
Less traffic in the traffic count allows the developer to create a project with more units.
Going on simultaneously, also some six months before the site plan was filed in November 2020, MileStone changed the restrictive covenant that the council approved a year prior.
It was the amended restrictive covenant document created in July that allowed MileStone to build upwards of 70 homes, Showers said.
MileStone told the city attorney it was a clerical error and changed the date of a key document. To Showers and other Milky Way neighbors, that portion of the process was not transparent and seemed secretive.
“The neighborhood had not seen (the updated document) before,” Showers said. He went to the zoning office and to the council to try to see what was in this legal document.
“Council said it was unable to make city attorneys take it back to council (for further review or another vote),” Showers said.
“They (MileStone) convinced the city staff and attorneys to essentially work around those caps (placed when the property was rezoned),” he said.
Milky Way neighbors and others in River Place spent years challenging aspects of the project ultimately to no avail. Now the first stages of construction are underway. MileStone did not return multiple requests for an interview for this article.
The Milky Way Drive neighborhood group asked the city about it, trying to prevent that kind of end run, but “the city had no response for us,” Showers said.