Council’s newest member brings developer perspective
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Liberty Hill’s newest Council member came as no stranger to his first Council meeting last month — and that’s not just because the seat’s last occupant was his mother.
Jon Branigan had been a regular and vocal presence at the public meetings for years before he filed to run for Place 3. Last year he chaired the Unified Development Code Advisory Committee, which combed through the development code line-by-line to recommend changes on topics such as construction standards, applications, zoning and more.
Branigan, whose term ends in 2019, arrived on the panel without having to stand for election. His lack of opposition removed the need for an election in May.
In public comments dating back to 2013, the real estate investor and developer has long advocated for business-friendly adjustments to the City’s rule books. At times he has called for lower costs for developer permits, fighting property tax increases, and “smart growth.”
As chair of the UDC committee, he presented to Council a list of the committee’s recommendations, such as the re-designation of certain building standards to be less restrictive.
Branigan has promised to bring the UDC’s recommendations back to the table, saying that a new Council and changes in the city in the last 12 months warrant a new consideration of the UDC.
A reconvening of the committee was the subject of an agenda item Branigan proposed to Council June 12.
In that same meeting, he also began a discussion to seek the formal initiation of talks that would annex the high school into the city limits so that a police officer could be stationed there.
While no action was taken, the brief discussions seemed to signal Branigan’s interest in “smart growth.”
Branigan spoke to The Independent last week about his role on the Council. While his public comments of the past should not be taken to predict his future votes, Branigan said, “smart growth” continues to be a defining theme for his vision going forward.
He said that as a public official, he now has to take into consideration a need to compromise, whereas previously, as a private citizen voicing concerns to Council, he did not have to.
“I don’t always agree with every one of the members at one time on any one issue, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together and vote together on something else,” he said. “That’s just part of running a city government.”
He said his business experience and skill set would bring a new perspective to the Council, which would benefit the city’s growth.
“I’ve been involved in starting a new business from nothing, developing raw land, and working with different municipalities on sewer, water, road construction and sales,” he said.
Branigan is currently developing the Rosemont Subdivision, a 50-lot single family home neighborhood near Tractor Supply off Loop 332.
He has been involved in the housing market since 2001. Local subdivisions he has developed over the years include Drake’s Crossing, Boulderwood, Cierra Springs, Cierra Vista, Rio Ancho and Iron Oaks.
In roughly the same time period, he said he has observed a welcome shift in Liberty Hill.
“It’s gone from a very poor community, with a bunch of struggling families,” he said, “to an up-and-coming community with a bunch of professionals.”
Branigan hopes to continue this trend going forward, and points to Georgetown as a hopeful example of a city with a newly enlarged professional class with mixed development.
As chair of the UDC, he had also pointed to Round Rock as a role model. But today, Branigan says some of Liberty Hill’s unique circumstances demand a self-created path going forward.
“The downtown area is the only downtown we have, and it’s small,” he said. “We need to preserve it. We need to have smart constraints, but growth needs to be encouraged.”
Water and wastewater were another point in that regard, as Branigan said that the city has a limited number of taps. “We need to be careful with agreements we make with developers, and be sure that those developments coming in benefit the city.”
Similarly, available lots along the city’s main corridors should be treated carefully, Branigan said.
“Every piece of property on (State Hwy) 29 does not need to be a commercial metal building with warehouse space in the back. We need to have retail space, and commercial space,” he said.
Branigan said that he wants to see the city departments get what resources they need to grow effectively in the future for the coming growth. He said the police department, for example, would soon need a new building.
In recent weeks, Branigan has met with department heads such as Public Works Director Wayne Bonnet and Police Chief Maverick Campbell.
He said he plans to meet with others in the near future to learn “what we as Council can do to help make their jobs easier.”
In the past, Branigan has voiced support for cutting department budgets for tax relief.
In August 2013, Branigan gave a public comment during a Council meeting to express his disapproval of a proposed 5 percent tax increase for property owners.
“There are plenty of places where the budget can be cut,” he said. “You may have to tell people (employees), sorry no raises, or cut back on services.”
Branigan expressed a concern that tax increases would discourage business, which has been a theme through many comments over the years.
Most recently in December 2016, Branigan addressed Council during public comments to express concerns that the fees the City is charging to developers are too costly.
“Some of these are exorbitant,” he said. “We all desire to seek positive growth and want to attract the right business. You want to recoup costs, but I think you can do it with lower costs.”
He suggested at the time that the City create a committee to review all of the fees associated with new developments.
Earlier that year, in a March 2016 meeting, Branigan spoke during public comments to say that “it would be better for the city to work more favorably with developers,” and that Rosemont had ended up more expensive than he believed it should have been.
It was not the first time that the Rosemont development had featured in Branigan’s comments.
In May 2016, Branigan gave a public comment urging Council to overturn the blanket ban on burning within the city limits.
“As long as citizens follow the rules and regulations I can’t see why you would prohibit it,” he said.
Council later voted to amend the burn ban to be even broader, striking down an exemption for burns in the effort to clear land.
The next meeting, however, Branigan was approved for a variance from the burn ban, specifically so he could burn a parcel within the 15.5 acre tract he was clearing for Rosemont.
The request was met with divided support on the Council, as city staff had voiced strong disapproval.
City Administrator Greg Boatright said the exemption opened the city to liability, and previous burn ban exemptions had been denied. City Planner Sally McFeron cited a similar controlled burn the year prior, which had grown out of control, and whose smoke resulted in the hospitalization of a neighbor.
Two Council members were absent, and the remaining three members were split. Member Ron Rhea voted no, Liz Branigan abstained, and Member Wendell McLeod voted to approve it. Mayor Connie Fuller delivered the tie-breaking vote to approve it.
Rosemont was featured again in the meeting on June 12, when improvements to the public water system at Rosemont were the subject of an agenda item. Branigan publicly said he would abstain, although City Attorney Dottie Palumbo said he did not have to because it was a public improvement.
“That’s one development in the city,” he said talking about the vote. “And when I do the next development, I’ll abstain on that one, too.”
Branigan said he would follow the laws on Council just as he had followed the laws as a developer, and “I’ve followed city rules and county rules my whole career.”