By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
This week’s City Council meeting saw a hefty agenda packet. An update on last year’s changes to the Unified Development Code reignited a point of contention. The city’s interests will be voiced to the 85th Texas Legislative session. And a consulting firm will help city planner draft a transportation plan.
All Council members were present except Ron Rhea.
Before the main agenda, department reports shed light on Liberty Hill in the midst of rapid growth. Appraisals for property values within the city limits are up 23 percent. 157 building permits were filed for the first quarter of this fiscal year, up from last year’s fourth quarter total of 89.
After the regular agenda, Council digressed for a one-hour executive session. When they reconvened, Mayor Connie Fuller announced that the city would be submitting a plan to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to have the upcoming expansion to the wastewater treatment plant adhere to TCEQ levels.
The next City Council, which will see Jon Branigan take the seat of his mother Elizabeth Branigan, will take the oath May 8.
Revisiting the UDC Revisions
An update on the finalizing details from a year-old set of changes to the Unified Development Code reignited a larger discussion Monday, which at times was emotionally charged, over how those changes were adopted in the first place.
Council Member Wendell McLeod, who served on the volunteer committee tasked last year with reviewing the UDC, asserted that city staff had overridden many of the Committee’s recommendations after they were presented last June to the Council.
City Administrator Greg Boatright denied the charge, and said “we made no changes to anything that Council adopted.”
For 15 minutes, other city employees and Council members weighed in until Council ultimately voted to reconvene the UDC committee and have them review how their recommended changes were and were not adopted by the Council.
The “finalizing details” for the UDC changes that sparked the discussion concerned the UDC committee’s recommendations on which provisions should be specified as the “most and least” restrictive.
This question will also be examined by the new meeting of the UDC committee before they present again before City Council.
Boatright said that while several meetings had been planned for it, none had panned out.
The meeting McLeod referred to happened last June, when Committee Chairman Jon Branigan presented the committee’s recommendations on provisions over subjects that included applications, permits, zoning districts, subdivisions, design standards, enforcement and compliance. It lasted over three and a half hours.
Most of those recommended changes, City Planner Sally McFeron said in Monday’s meeting, were “simple housekeeping” that made the UDC easier to read. She said that while most were approved and passed by Council, some were not.
McFeron said that when the amendments were presented to Council, “We had the UDC recommendations with the staff recommendations on the side. And that’s how Council went through them.”
She said that the Committee’s recommendations were represented at the June meeting and also at the planning workshop that had occurred the week before that meeting.
Fuller said that McLeod was right, and that it was unfair that the committee’s only representation at the meeting was Jon Branigan, who had to “defend everything.”
What the Council voted on, she said, was “not necessarily the recommendation of the UDC Committee.”
“I’m not in favor of doing away with all we’ve got,” she said. “I’m in favor of us respecting the work of people that worked for a year, and not have it changed.”
Ultimately, Councilmember Liz Rundzieher made a motion that the question should be resolved before a meeting of the Committee, and should only then be returned to discussion for Council. It was seconded by McLeod and passed unanimously.
The committee consists of Jon Branigan, Bill Chapman, Clyde Davis, Lance Dean, Jack Garner Jr., Wes Griffin, Patrick Harlow, Cheryl New, Wendell McLeod, Chris Pezold and David Widmer.
The distinction between the most and least restrictive is already alluded to in sections of the UDC, would allow more leniency on some codes.
Though the UDC is the only code for property owners within the city’s limits, those in the larger area of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction also have the county’s codes, which are understood to be more relaxed.
The importance, McFeron explained, is that if a developer feels that a city’s codes are overly restrictive on top of the county’s, they will defer completely to the county’s code.
City interests to be represented in state legislative session
Against a backdrop of a state legislative session containing several bills that could dramatically affect local governments, Council voted to approve a resolution outlining their positions to be distributed to relevant state lawmakers and lobbying groups. Additionally, city employees are now authorized to speak on behalf of those politics involved.
City Attorney Dottie Palumbo walked Council through the text of the resolution, which specifies three priority areas for support and nine areas it opposes bills currently being discussed.
The resolution holds local control as the top-most priority for Liberty Hill. Second is the protection of annexation rights, which Palumbo said are threatened by several bills in the session.
The third priority for support concerns the reform of sales tax, which the resolution says refers to legislation that would allow the city to replace the sales tax for an emergency service district with its own.
Some bills in specific were discussed.
Senate Bill 2, which the city opposes, would cut the amount in allowed increases in property taxes from year to year. Currently, a more than 8 percent increase in property tax revenue allows citizens to file a petition for a rollback election. SB2 would cut the threshold to 5 percent, and automatically trigger the election, which generates a cost for the city that threatens to overshadow any potential gains.
HB 299 would “severely curtail rights of cities to annex.” HB 2551 would preemptively deny a city’s authority to regulate short-term rentals, which Palumbo said could become a problem for quiet-seeking neighborhoods in the future. HB 2838 would curtail the ability of cities to regulate where telecommunication companies place certain poles, which Palumbo said, have in other cities already been installed in dangerous and unsightly places.
Copies of the resolution will be provided to State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, State Rep. Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, and the Texas Municipal League. Additionally, city officials are now authorized to voice these positions.
Law firm to help Liberty Hill annex outward
Council approved an agreement to Bojorquez Law Firm to have them assist the city staff in upcoming annexation efforts.
The same measure was tabled at the last meeting because, Boatright said, there were additional details that needed to be included in the agreement.
“We’re already behind on processing annexations this year,” Boatright said Monday.
He said that current existing limits on the amount a city is allowed to annex in a year present a source of urgency for annexation efforts— but additionally, several bills in discussion at the Capitol make it more so.
Boatright said that the effort is particularly urgent because of bills that, if they were to become law, could halt annexations by September or even earlier.
The type of annexation in question is called “involuntary,” and refers to unilateral incorporations that do not require the property owner’s consent.
These are important, Boatright explained, when closing up gaps between voluntary annexations. An example would be the space between the Grayson subdivision and First Texas Bank.
Boatright highlighted the areas to the east on Highway 29 and to the north and south of Seward Junction as particular focal points for annexation efforts.
But the service is also needed for voluntary annexations. Boatright said that many on Bagdad Road have requested it, seeking utility services.
Phase 1 is estimated to take 18-27 hours. Phase 2 is expected to take 19-33 hours. The hourly rate for both will be $125 per hour.
The motion passed 4-0.
Transportation Plan to help City become partner to County
Council voted to approve a proposal that would have the consulting firm CP&Y assist the Planning & Zoning Commission in developing a comprehensive transportation plan for the city.
After “identifying current and future needs in the town,” the proposal promises to deliver a preliminary transportation plan map, alongside a trove of raw data collected in original studies and research.
The proposal also lays out the framework for collaboration with the P&Z and Council in determining the goals of a transportation plan.
While the proposal in question concerns a “phase 1” for the plan, which would focus on central Liberty Hill, future phases would expand beyond it.
Senior Program Manager John Dean from CP&Y said the city is wise to plan for its transportation early on while it “still has a smaller population.”
“Believe me, it can get out of hand quickly,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, during a discussion of ongoing city projects, consultant Pix Howell said that a transportation plan would be necessary for many grant applications from the Texas Department of Transportation.
Dean reiterated the importance of those grants, and said that a transportation plan would also allow the city to have more control over its roadways when talking to the county and individual developers.
Boatright said that the city has had to push back on some of the county’s roadway plans, such as when Williamson County requested to reserve space for a 120 foot right of way where the western boundary of Liberty Parke is.
“We’re challenged when we try to comply with the county road plan when we don’t have one of our one,” Boatright said. “We want to be a partner with the county, but right now, we’re at their mercy.”
The proposal passed 4-0.
In the earlier agenda item concerning the update of city projects, Boatright said that meetings with TxDOT and consultants had led him to expect that the city may need to eventually contribute money toward TxDOT’s plans to improve the intersection of County Road 200 and Highway 29.
The intersection, along with others throughout town, were identified as a priority for the city in alleviating traffic stress at peak hours.
Boatright said that the city has never to his knowledge partnered with TxDOT before, but an involvement with CR 200’s expansion could be an opportunity “to get our feet wet with TxDOT.”
Howell said that that connection could help influence in the future where ramps are placed on the planned 183A extension.
Legal question over police association dues deduction resolved
Legal questions cast over a recent Council measure to automate the payroll deduction of association dues for police have been dispelled, following additional research by the city’s legal department.
Earlier this month, an automatic payroll deduction for police officers into the Texas Municipal Police Association was approved by Council over the concerns of the City Attorney, who said it could exceed the express authority of the city specified in state law.
The discussion then, which continued from the month before, centered on the fact that for Texas cities under 10,000 population, only automated payroll deductions for certain city positions are spelled out in state law.
Council approved the measure April 10 after a TMPA representative handed out a list of 50 Texas cities under that population mark that had passed similar measures.
At Monday’s meeting, Palumbo returned as planned to Council with the legal department’s findings after looking into those 50 cities.
As long as TMPA pays an administrative fee to the city, she said, it is legal.
This is because the deduction is then defined as a contractual agreement, which state law empowers the city administrator to handle.
The 25 percent fee, which was included in the original motion passed, compensates for the additional paperwork required of city staff to handle the payroll deduction.
The automated deduction ensures that police officers in TMPA, a labor organization representing law enforcement, do not need to write out a check to pay their dues. Instead, the payment will be automatically deducted by the city from their paychecks.
Liberty Hill, as a general law city, can only express authority insofar as it is specified by state law.
Once its population reaches 5,000, the city can self-declare itself a home rule city. State law then only limits the city’s power, rather than define it.
New Patrol Sergeant and Reserve Officer announced, but not identified
Police Chief Maverick Campbell has selected a new Patrol Sergeant and Reserve Officer after conducting interviews this past week.
However, Campbell opted to withhold their formal introduction to the Council until he had the opportunity to inform the candidates who were not selected.
Currently, the Department has one Patrol Sergeant, Robert Fox, to oversee patrol officers.
Campbell said that this can be a problem, because when neither Fox or himself are on duty, they must continue to fulfill some of those responsibilities at home.
He used the example of a car chase. If the pursuit constituted a disturbance or danger in itself, the Patrol Sergeant might be expected to make the call whether to call it off or not.
The additional Patrol Sergeant has already been selected from a roster of internal applicants. The new Reserve officer has been selected from outside interviews.
Council voted to allow Campbell to conditionally offer the employment to the selected candidates, who will be formally approved at May 8th.
Both positions were funded in the budget. The employee appointed to the Sergeant position will receive a raise, which is yet to be specified.
Development continues with shipping container office, MorningStar
A variance for a warehouse building was granted to an upcoming office rental property utilizing shipping containers.
Owner Zach Hargraves hopes to renovate the house on the property, located at 151 St. Joseph Court near A-Line Auto Parts, into the first phase of the office space. Phases 2 and 3 will see shipping containers brought in and properly outfitted to serve as additional office space.
The summary of the variance request reads that, “The intent of the shipping containers is to both appeal to the clientele of the tenants who will inhabit the office space, as well as introduce a structure that compliments the surrounding area.”
The variance specifically refers to an office warehouse space that will be situated in the back of the lot. The property is zoned as General Commercial/Retail.
Later in the meeting, the preliminary plat for phase 2 of the MorningStar Ranch subdivision was approved. The plat concerned 88.6 acres and 331 homes to be built, adding to the 332 homes partially filled out from the first phase.
McLeod asked if the homes were single-family, and immediately supported the motion after hearing that they were.
Mayor Recognized Volunteer Week
Mayor Fuller issued a mayoral proclamation recognizing “National Volunteer Week” to be celebrated in Liberty Hill from April 24-28.
Fuller said that volunteers serve on City Council, the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Economic Development Corporation, and more. 53 volunteers serve the city alone, read a statement distributed in the meeting, “and there are hundreds more serving throughout the community.”
Fuller said that the average value for a volunteer’s contribution was $24.14 per hour.