Commercial zone change approved over some residents’ objections

By SHELLY WILKISON

Despite the objections of residents,  the Liberty Hill City Council voted Monday to rezone two lots in the Highway Twenty Nine Ranch Subdivision to General Commercial — a change residents say violates their deeds and restrictions.

The Council heard from four property owners who opposed the change. However, City Attorney Art Rodriguez said the residents’ legal dispute is not with the City of Liberty Hill, which previously annexed the property.

The deeds and covenants are binding agreements between the property owners and the developer. Any zoning action by the City does not change those documents, Rodriguez explained.

“There is nothing that prevents the City from doing this,” he said.

Property owner Jimmy Saunders has stated that the two lots in question with State Higway 29 frontage will be developed commercially as possible locations for a bank and a Starbucks Coffee. The commercial area will also provide an entrance to an additional 100 homesites planned for the subdivision. Residents say the developer sought their approval on the changes, but more than 70 percent said no.

Rodriguez said a Starbucks might comply with the commercial zoning change, but it would be contrary to the deed covenenants residents have with the developer.

“This (zoning change) will drive all of us into a legal dispute,” said resident Lori Gallagher, who shared her opposition with the Council Monday and in previous meetings.

“I heard (City Manager) Greg Boatright say this would not undo our deed restrictions, but force us into a court case (with the developer),” said resident Marilyn LeGault. “That seems crazy. It doesn’t seem right.”

“This comes down to the type of city we want to be, where development is diverse and people are happy to be part of it,” said Councilmember Elizabeth Branigan, who listened to the concerns of the residents and made a motion to reject the zoning change. Councilmember Vicki Brewer supported the motion, which failed 3-2.

“From your standpoint, you shouldn’t confuse zoning with restrictions with their (property) use,” Rodriguez said. “This is not an issue for the City. The only concern the City would have is if the use was contrary to what City C-3 (General Commercial) use would be.”

After the additional explanation requested of the attorney by Councilmember Liz Rundzieher, Mrs. Fuller made a new motion to approve an ordinance that rezoned the property to General Commercial. The motion passed 3-2 with the support of Councilmembers Rundzieher and Wendell McLeod. Councilmembers Branigan and Brewer voted no. The Mayor cannot vote except to break a tie.

In other business Monday, the Council voted unanimously to allow the Police Department to seek a grant from the Lower Colorado River Authority to help purchase 12 new Tasers. The City will pay 30 percent of the cost ($4,653) of the new equipment and if approved, LCRA would pay the remaining $15,509.

Police Chief Randy Williams said the department’s current equipment is outdated and the stun guns fail to work when tested randomly before officers go on shift.

“Officers test everything at the start of each shift,”  Williams told The Independent. “Some are not firing, creating a potentially dangerous situation for officers.”

Williams said he requested 12 weapons because he is reinstating non-paid reserve officers to put more officers on the street. Currently, the department has five full-time officers and one part-time.

The Council rejected an attempt by McLeod to replace William Soja on the Planning & Zoning Commission with Troy Whitehead. Soja’s term ends in September, and he has not expressed an interest in leaving the board.

Ms. Branigan suggested the move was an attempt to replace Soja, who in the past has disagreed with some P&Z decisions.

“We don’t need to get rid of people just because we don’t like what they think,” said Ms. Branigan. “I feel the City is best represented by diversity of thought. I feel it’s best not to appoint ‘yes people.’ P&Z (members) should feel free to express their opinions.”

McLeod provided little explanation for the appointment change except that Whitehead was a city resident and Soja is not.

McLeod’s motion failed for lack of a second.

Mrs. Brewer then made a motion, which passed unanimously, to take no action to replace P&Z members.

Mrs. Fuller suggested that Bylaws should be presented to P&Z members so they will know their obligations to the City.

“In the past, some personal opinions have been given (by Board members), but it should be based on the vision for the City,” she said. “That would make our boards more effective.”

In other personnel matters, the Council voted to change the frequency that it evaluates the performance of the City Manager.

McLeod suggested that Boatright be evaluated annually as is the case with other city employees. Currently, he is evaluated by Council every three months as required in his employment contract, and he has had one evaluation since his contract was approved in September 2013. The Council agreed to evaluate Boatright again about 30 days before his contract expires in September 2014.

Also Monday, the Council voted unanimously to:

- Adopt an ordinance calling for an election on May 10 on the question of renewing the municipal sales tax on street maintenance.

- Amend the City calendar to add Dec. 26, 2014, as a full-day holiday for employees. Employees will now be compensated for Dec. 25 and 26.

- Adopt an ordinance zoning 72 acres on 12331 West State Highway 29 as High Density Residential — the proposed site of the Liberty Parke subdivision.

Following a 15-minute executive session, the panel took no action regarding the possible purchase of property at 902 Loop 332 for purposes of creating a parking lot serving downtown. Instead, the Council asked McLeod, Boatright and City Planner Amber Lewis to explore other possible opportunities for downtown parking.