Bella Sera restaurant still in works

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By Christine Bolaños

Bella Sera, an Italian restaurant with several locations in the Hill Country, may still come to Liberty Hill provided its team can meet all of the city’s requirements for a building permit.

The restaurant’s representatives bought land and came to the Liberty Hill Economic Development Corp. for the first time in December 2014 and asked for public assistance to offset costs of utilities, water and sewer, sprinklers and a fire hydrant, as well as tax abatements.

They asked for $163,000, and the EDC Board of Directors went back and forth on the request for several months. In July, they voted against granting the request focusing instead on paying to improve the water line to the property.

City officials explained this was not because they did not want to offer support to the restaurant but rather the amount was beyond the Liberty Hill EDC’s budget. Bella Sera initially asked for $163,000, while in comparison, Chicken Express was granted $15,000 when it came to town. Chicken Express, according to EDC Director Kirk Clennan, brings about $1 million in sales tax a year. He said the $15,000 also went toward infrastructure, specifically water.

“That’s one year’s revenue for our EDC,” explained City Manager Greg Boatright. “Actually, it’s a little more than that. I think our half cent generates around $140,000 a year that has to do with sales tax.”

At that point, the Bella Sera team was left with the option to re-apply.

“They set their sights too high for a community our size as far as what we could offer them in the way of incentives,” Boatright said. “We’re limited because of the amount of money that we have available. We do have a pretty good reserve, but we don’t want to deplete that reserve on one business.”

The restaurant would be located on Brown Bridge Road and State Highway 29, an area that lacks the proper infrastructure. City officials are working to ensure that any new businesses coming to town have the needed infrastructure to avoid further issues. This is why the EDC Board opted to support the water line.

Documentation provided by Bella Sera project consultant John Villarreal shows the restaurant at 13985 Hwy. 29.

City officials said the property has housed several businesses, most recently the Shot Time Bar, and is in need of considerable work.

“It’s never had wastewater run to it. There are several things that we’d have to look at on utilities,” Boatright said. “They didn’t include all their information for one about what was on site, what was needed. One of the main things that concerned me in their submission is they were saying there was no need for improvement for the parking area. Well there’s not an existing parking area.”

Boatright said the parking area was, at best, on gravel and for safety reasons the City required a hard surface such as concrete for parking.

City officials said that for these reasons the application was essentially incomplete. This type of situation is unusual, they said, but it is because usually the point of contact is an engineer or architect.

“I think John (Villarreal) is trying to handle a lot of the legwork on his own,” Boatright said. “We find a lot of problems (in these type of situations) because engineers are familiar with the system of a city and how it works.”

The city’s Senior Planner Sally McFeron met with Villarreal to go over the site plan comments and suggestions on how to move the application from incomplete to complete status. City officials said they recommended Bella Sera consider appointing an engineer to the project. This meeting occurred one day before The Independent was scheduled to meet with city officials.

Villarreal said the site plan comments were dated Sept. 14, but he did not receive them until Monday’s meeting. When asked, city officials could not say why Villarreal had not received them earlier.

After the EDC Board’s decision in July, the project’s scope seemed to change.

“The process seemed to transition more to land use,” Clennan said. “The project seemed not to evolve but devolve to a much smaller facility and a much smaller restaurant. I haven’t heard much more about Bella Sera from an incentive request standpoint in several months.”

Boatright explained there were several factors that led to the project’s stagnancy including the death of a prior engineer involved with the project, a new planning director for the City and the scope of the project.

“It went from a new building to an 800-square-foot addition,” Boatright said. “We’re waiting on them to give us a complete plan that shows where the existing septic system is. They definitely need to get onto the city’s sewer and where those connections need to be made. My biggest hang-up is the parking.”

He said even if the city wanted to, it would be unfair to loosen the requirements for one business and not another.

“All we’re asking Bella Sera to do is submit the type of plan we can look at and that everything is complete and we have the ability to make comments back,” he said. “It’s been very difficult to make comments on it because it’s been so incomplete.”

For his part, Villarreal said that until Monday’s meeting he had received little to no communication from the city.

“I’m waiting for specific information from the planning department in Liberty Hill on what is required to get my site plan approval,” Villarreal said last week. “The process has been going on for about a year. It was a big $300,000 restaurant that we wanted to do.

“We scaled it back to only keeping the existing building and adding an 800-square-foot kitchen if you will,” he said. “My role as design developer and owner-agent was I took on a project where the owner purchased the property.”

He said he approached the EDC for incentives on the owner’s behalf.

“At first it was very favorable in speaking with the people there at the city. Then when a new hire at the EDC came on board things changed as far as the approval process,” Villarreal said. “Even though all the fees have been paid for engineering and utility discovery, we thought we were in the process of acquiring a building permit for my owner.”

Then the restaurant’s team learned of the EDC Board’s decision to not grant $160,000 in incentives. The cost for a 100-seat sprinkler system would also prove costly.

“So we scaled the design back to what was there, which was adding a kitchen if you will,” Villarreal explained. “So we’re creating a small restaurant and building it back so my owner could get a return on his investment and invest in a bigger restaurant.”

Making progress on the project seemed difficult when, as Villarreal said, every time he reached out to city staff it seemed as if he was re-starting the process.

“Our goal was to open up not this month — we would have liked to be opened in June,” he said. “When that didn’t happen my owner went to Europe thinking that by the time he got back it would be opened this month (December) and in fact I don’t know where we are.”

He said he has worked with other cities where he typically goes through a site approval and permitting process.

“Here, I’m not getting any direction to what’s next,” he said.

As of his meeting with McFeron, Villarreal was hopeful the process would run more smoothly moving forward.

“She apologized and we discussed how to proceed moving forward,” he said. “Please note, that on behalf of the owners, I want to expedite this project to building permit as it should have been done months ago.”

City officials said the permitting process is usually quicker.

“Some of them depend on revisions and reviews and how involved each project is,” Boatright said. “If (Villarreal) would get an engineer to turn that project over to and turn him loose I think in 45 days we could have that permitting done and go from there. Get what we need back to us so we complete our due diligence and get what’s needed.”

McFeron agreed.

“We talked about an engineer and doing civil work on some of it,” she said. “Like I said we had a good meeting. He’s going to try these particular revisions back within the next week or so. He did have an engineer at one point in time for LUE but that has changed in terms of the scope of the project. The overall scope of the project needs to include — because of utilities — it needs to include all uses on the property and not just the restaurant.”

Any documentation, Boatrght said, needs to have an engineer’s seal of record to be considered official.

“We’re waiting for that complete set of drawings that has an engineer of record so that we can then comment back to,” he reiterated.

City officials said they welcome businesses like Bella Sera to town.

Clennan pointed to the capital investment and job opportunities the restaurant could bring.

“You look at Dahlia Café and that’s a real important business for our community,” Boatright said. “Bella Sera I think will be important as well. People love to go places and drive to places to eat. I think Bella Sera has a track record.

“We certainly need more restaurants and more choices in the community so we’re anxious to get them here and get them going,” Boatright added.

He believes the permitting process is faster in Liberty Hill than in larger cities due to direct contact with individuals such as the senior planner and city manager.

“It’s not like you have to go through several layers to get to a person that can make the decision,” Boatright explained. “When they walk into (McFeron’s) office they’re talking to the senior planner on what they need to submit, time tables and getting those submissions back to you with comments.

“We certainly want to have an expedited process and I think we do if we get people that are wanting to do proper planning and hire people that are needed to go through the process and make it as expedient as possible,” he continued.

The Bella Sera team remains positive about coming to town.

“I know the entire community of Liberty Hill is very familiar with the name Bella Sera,” Villarreal said. “We are very much looking forward to bringing it to Liberty Hill.”

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