City prepares for growth by hiring planner

Amber Lewis stepped into the role of Planner for the City of Liberty Hill, a new position created by the City Council to help facilitate development for the city. (Shelly Wilkison Photo)

Amber Lewis stepped into the role of Planner for the City of Liberty Hill, a new position created by the City Council to help facilitate development for the city. (Shelly Wilkison Photo)

By SHELLY WILKISON

While better positioning Liberty Hill for growth has been the goal of the business community for some time, the City Council took a big step in that direction in January when it created the position of City Planner and hired a credentialed person to fill it.

While fairly new to Texas, Amber Lewis  is no stranger to city government and public administration. Before moving to Llano last summer, she was serving as Executive Director of the Housing Authority of the City of Holdrege and the Holdrege Development Corp., in Holdrege, Nebraska.

Prior to that, she was an assistant city manager for the City of Kearney, Nebraska, and also worked two years for a consulting firm that secured and managed public grants. She moved from Kearney to Llano last summer after her husband, Brenton Lewis, was hired as City Manager in April 2013.

Although coming from Kearney — a city of about 30,000 in Central  Nebraska, Mrs. Lewis said the challenges facing a growing Liberty Hill are not all that different from those in other cities.

“What we’re doing is planning for future growth in a way that is consistent with how Liberty Hill citizens and the City Council want to see it grow,” she said.

The guide for growth is the city’s Comprehensive Plan — a collaborative document that has been in development for some time and will continue to change as the community changes. With only a few weeks on the job, Mrs. Lewis is spending time on the plan and will help collect and document public input after a public forum that was scheduled for tonight, March 6.

“Liberty Hill has a lot of catching up to do,” she said. “But it is in a great position to develop.”

Mrs. Lewis said she has been spending much of her time learning administrative procedures, reviewing development agreements, studying annexation issues and considering requests for variances. She is also creating new forms, updating the city’s fee schedule and assisting with a rate study for water and wastewater services.

In the process, she is becoming familiar with the Unified Development Code — the ordinances that govern how the City of Liberty Hill protects its residents and does business with developers.

The UDC has been the target of a great deal of criticism over the years as many of its components appear to be out of step with the needs of the community. It was adopted years ago when the City first incorporated and was adapted from rules governing the City of Round Rock. As issues have presented themselves, some things in the UDC have changed to better apply to Liberty Hill, but many say more work is needed, and soon.

“I’m glad the UDC is in place,” she said. “It is a good plan to start from. Some things are more strict than what is needed, but there is always opportunity to change that.”

She said changes to the UDC should be brought to the Council by the Planning & Zoning Commission and led by city staff.

As with any city experiencing some level of growth, the struggle between various interests can often seem overwhelming, she said, adding that Liberty Hill’s “growing pains” are really no different.

“But dialogue is a good thing,” she said. “The City has to listen to all of the opinions.”

Mrs. Lewis, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in political science and public administration, said she enjoyed the study of government and politics in college.

“This is truly my passion,” she said. “It is fast-paced work. I enjoy the new challenges, working with people and watching the community grow.”

Straight out of college, Mrs. Lewis did an internship with the City of Kearney — an experience that opened the door to full-time employment. As assistant city manager from 2005-2008, she authored grant applications for the city, was the legislative liaison, served as Human Resources director, served as chief examiner for the Civil Service Commission, and was lead staff for the Downtown Improvement Board, among other responsibilities.

Three years later in 2011, she was hired as Executive Director of the Housing Authority in Holdrege. That entity built homes for low to moderate income residents and the elderly, managed the property, owned and maintained the streets and water lines.

Mrs. Lewis said as residential subdivisions continue to dot the landscape in and around Liberty Hill, new businesses will open. Many of the planned subdivisions propose to have some commercially zoned property.

“The City Council took a huge step toward growth by funding the (planning) position and making planning and development a priority,” said Mrs. Lewis. “So when they (developers and businesses) come to us, we’re ready to move forward.”

She said she would like to see Liberty Hill’s downtown area develop and prosper. She said the area would benefit from creating a downtown business  organization whose members would work together to encourage people to come downtown.

“I’d love to see Liberty Hill become a destination itself,” she said.

Mrs. Lewis’ husband, Brenton Lewis, is a native of the Texas Panhandle and was looking for an opportunity to move back to Texas when the position of City Manager in Llano opened.

Mrs. Lewis said she doesn’t mind the 50-mile trek to Liberty Hill. Commuting almost two hours a day through the Hill Country is better than an Austin commute, she said. The Lewises have two children who attend school in Llano.

Working in the same career field, Mrs. Lewis said she and her husband often “bounce ideas off each other,” but would not consider working for the same city.

“We just hit the jackpot. This is the best area of Texas,” she said.