P&Z elects Davis chair, sends plat to Council over Manager’s objections

P&Z elects Davis chair, sends plat
to Council over Manager’s objections

Within minutes after calling the first meeting to order, it was revealed that newly-appointed members of the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission had communicated a plan by email prior to the meeting to elect Clyde Davis chairman.

Davis was not present Tuesday. However, he was nominated for the post by Wesley Griffin, and the motion was seconded by Patrick Harlow. Members Sammy Pruett and Bill Soja voted yes. Chris Pezold was not present.

The pre-arranged leadership of the panel was revealed when Commissioner Janet Oliver abstained from the vote. She explained that she had just completed the required online ethics training when she saw the email communications between newly-appointed commissioners planning to nominate and elect Davis, a local real estate broker, as Chair.

“We’re not supposed to have meetings by email or phone,” she said. “That’s why I’m not voting.”

City Manager Manuel De La Rosa told The Independent Wednesday that Mrs. Oliver “raised a valid concern. The communication between two or more commissioners could be a violation of the Open Meetings Act.”

Griffin, who was nominated and unanimously elected Vice Chairman, went on to chair the meeting in Davis’ absence. He said he had not completed the ethics training and did not know that it was a violation when he sent the email.

Appointees to City boards and commissions have 90 days from their appointment dates to complete the training, De La Rosa said.

They must also submit a signed Code of Ethics and Conduct Form to the City. De La Rosa said members of the Planning & Zoning Commission who had not submitted the form by Wednesday are Davis and Pezold.

None of the members present Tuesday would volunteer to serve as Secretary, so Griffin said he would serve in the dual role until someone stepped forward. For the first meeting, City Secretary Tammy Kirk served in the position.

After the organizational tasks were completed, the Commission, over the objections of the City Manager, voted 3-0 with two abstensions to recommend the City Council approve a final plat for Phase I of 1869 Ranch, a proposed housing development.

While the final decision rests with the Council, Commissioners Griffin, Harlow and Pruett voted to recommend approval after hearing a presentation by David Gray, a representative of the developer. Gray said the City had given its approval to the plan for a 200-acre single-family residential community in 2009, but is now objecting because the plan does not show the proposed State Highway 29 Bypass, which is scheduled to be built by Williamson County through the center of the property at a time not yet determined. The subdivision will be located on RR 1869, south of downtown and inside the City’s extra-territorial jurisdiction.

De La Rosa explained that his objection was based on the City’s responsiblity to adhere to an interlocal agreement with the County that requires the City to take into consideration the County’s future plans for development and infrastructure.

De La Rosa said the proposed bypass planned to the south of Liberty Hill should appear on the drawings, but Gray said the City has no right to make such a request.

The original plans considered by the City were approved before De La Rosa’s employment in April.

“We feel like we have the right to develop the property. We have an approved plan and the City is the primary authority to approve it, and we have every right to proceed with the development. If some day they (the County) take steps forward to build, they have the authority to come in and condemn it,” he said.

Gray said the property owner received a letter from the County with an “unofficial offer to buy it, but it was unofficially rejected, and no condemnation letter was filed.”

Gray said he had spoken with “a lot of people” about the proposed bypass and has heard “that there’s no funding available for it in terms of construction or purchasing the right of way. I’m not able to identify any available funding or a time frame.”

Commissioner Harlow said his property is “directly in the middle of all that. The whole deal is (Pct. 2 County Commissioner) Cynthia Long wants to put a toll road in. She wants access so she can build a toll road. This is a Cynthia Long shell game.”

Commissioner Long told The Independent Wednesday that the project is still on track.

“At this time, there’s no status change. It’s still on the transportation plan,” she said. “There is some money set aside for the project, but no, at this time, all the money isn’t there. We’ve bought some of the right-of-way properties, but right now, not everyone is a willing seller. But we’ve not turned away any willing seller.”

According to the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), the bypass is scheduled for construction and completion between 2020-2035.

After voting to recommend the Council approve the plat, Harlow added that he has “been dealing with the County for two and a half years” on the proposed bypass. “This is the biggest crock I’ve seen in my life,” he said.

The preliminary plat approved by the City of Liberty Hill in 2009 expires in May 2011, which explains the developer’s sense of urgency. According to the City’s Unified Development Code, construction must begin within two years of the plan’s approval in order for the plat to remain viable. After that, the Code requires that the developer start over by presenting new plans and paying new fees.

De La Rosa said the City can not get out of its agreement with the County “until the County says you can forgive this. We have a duty to follow the agreement.”

He said that Gray had presented his client’s case to the Planning & Zoning Commission “because this body can make a different recommendation. But the Council will get a different recommendation from us (city staff).”

In response, Griffin made the motion. “I recommend that we approve the plat and let the Council deal with the next step,” he said.

After the meeting, De La Rosa said that if the bypass is not shown on the plat, “it still exists on the County’s thoroughfare plan and bond projects list; therefore, I believe potential homebuyers should be informed.”

In other business Tuesday, the Commission voted unanimously to give conditional approval to the preliminary plat of the 660-lot Highland Meadows subdivision. All comments on the plat must be received by the City within 20 days.

While no action was taken on the issue, De La Rosa and commissioners discussed the ongoing efforts to develop a comprehensive plan for the City. He said city committees will play a role in the development of a plan, and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Christian Business Leaders Association have also expressed an interest in the process.

He cautioned the new appointees to be careful when it comes to listening to “minority groups that don’t represent the city as a whole.

“We realize that we aren’t hearing the same things from everyone, and we’re not going to make everybody happy,” said De La Rosa. “We (the City) are not an island and there are a lot of parties we have to work with.”

“It’s important that we be friendly to development,” said Pruett, a real estate appraiser. Businesses “can’t seem to do things for the mounds of regulations being piled on. This isn’t a big enough (community) for the fees that are coming down the line. It’s happened to me and I’m pretty upset about it. I think the City thinks everyone is middle to upper class, but people don’t have money (to pay costly fees). City needs to think about gettings its fees on the back end instead of the front end.”

“If we (Planning & Zoning Commission) are advisory, we want the City to be friendly to these people who are trying to buy businesses, property to better their lives,” said Griffin, an architect.

“It disturbs me that we have seven pages of sign ordinance. I hope to get it down to one or two pages,” Griffin said. “So a small business owner can go on (State Highway) 29 to put up a modest sign. I want us to be business friendly instead of being a detriment. I think the market should decide what a ‘modest’ sign is.

“Safety is a valid criteria (for determining the number and types of signs allowed), but (the community) being pretty is not,” he added.

“We (the City) are not being heavy-handed or asking people to take their signs down,” said De La Rosa. “But the City staff has a job to do. Certain things are sign blight. Nowhere in this country can people just do whatever they want.”

“But it’s my goal to get us closer to that,” Griffin responded.