New code will make development in Liberty Hill less restrictive

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By SHELLY WILKISON

The City Council adopted new rules for development on Monday that proponents describe as being less restrictive than those contained in the current Unified Development Code.

By a 3-2 vote with Council Members Ron Rhea and Liz Rundzieher opposed, the measure passed with no discussion about detailed changes to the Code.

However, city officials told The Independent Wednesday that the decision Monday isn’t final. After Monday’s meeting, legal counsel advised city staff that a public hearing must be held on the proposed changes before Council takes final action to adopt them. That public hearing to receive comments will be set in early January 2018.

On Monday, despite a plea from Mayor Connie Fuller that the Council take time to go through the proposed amendments to the Code, a motion to adopt the recommendations in their entirety was quickly made by Council Member Wendell McLeod and seconded by Jon Branigan, a local developer who also serves as chairman of the UDC Advisory Committee. Also voting yes was Council Member Troy Whitehead. The Mayor cannot vote except to break a tie.

The Advisory Committee, which is comprised of the entirety of the Planning & Zoning Commission plus Branigan and McLeod, has been meeting since June to revamp the code after members complained the Council in 2016 did not adopt all of their recommended changes. In May, Branigan, the committee chair, took a seat on the Council that had been held previously by his mother who did not seek re-election. Reconsideration of the UDC was Branigan’s top priority as a council member and within weeks of being seated, he called the first meeting of the group.

On Monday, Rhea reminded the Council that they had voted on the revisions a year earlier and the main point of disagreement at that time had found its way back into the new recommendations.

“The first time this was submitted (July 2016), 73 percent of what they recommended, we did,” Rhea said. “The only thing we really said no to was the Board of Adjustments. They knew that. Why did they put it back in?”

Although Rhea didn’t get an answer to his question, Branigan pointed to language that “the city council will act as a Board of Adjustments until a separate Board of Adjustments is appointed.”

The UDC further states that the Council is responsible for appointing a Board of Adjustments.

“I’d like to pull that out and have a motion on that, so we can focus on the whole UDC,” Rhea said before the vote was taken. “We already said no to the Board of Adjustments. The City Council is the Board of Adjustments. I checked with TML Legal (Texas Municipal League), and there’s not one General Law city that has a Board of Adjustments.”

Under the newly-adopted UDC, the Board of Adjustments, once appointed, would bypass the council and be the panel that hears appeals from developers regarding decisions made by city staff. With 75 percent of the board’s support, it can, for example, reverse a decision made by a city staff member, and authorize a variation from a zoning ordinance.

“I remember that we did vote against the Board of Adjustments,” Fuller added.

However, her concern with the document as presented was that the committee had struck language adopted from the Comprehensive Plan that addressed was originally included to establish consistency with the vision and plan for the city.

“They marked out all the plan at the beginning because I think they thought it was redundant,” Fuller said. “But, the more I thought about it, the more I thought look, cities have a comprehensive plan because it keeps your vision out before people. And if you don’t keep that vision in front of people then we have boards and people that come in, our administration changes or staff changes, so if they don’t know what it is that we’re working toward and what the original vision was, then it gets lost. I think personally that it’s a good idea to have that — that the UDC be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. That is the adopted plan we have, so if we change anything in the UDC, I think we should go back to this and say, does it line up with the plan that the founding fathers of this city had, and had been adopted by councils before us.”

“We’ve worked on this a very long time,” said Branigan. “We have recommendations from the Planning and Zoning board and the (UDC Advisory) Committee. You (council members) were all welcome to come to our meetings any time. They were all posted, and no one showed up.”

In response to Rundzieher’s concern that once adopted it couldn’t be changed, Branigan said “it’s a living document, it can be changed.”

Other changes to the current UDC adopted Monday include a provision that addresses the interpretation of the rules when the UDC is in conflict with requirements of the County in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ), “the requirement that is least restrictive or that imposes lower standards as determined by the City Council will apply.”

In the case of subdivision applications and permits, the UDC takes precedence in cases of conflict with Williamson County codes. While the County has review authority in the city’s ETJ, the UDC shall apply pursuant to an Interlocal Agreement between the two entities.

Regarding the designation of parkland, the UDC previously required developers to dedicate a minimum 8 percent of the total residential subdivision acreage for use as parkland. The area could not fall within the 100-year floodplain. The new code removes that provision allowing the dedicated land to fall in the floodplain. It also eliminates language requiring the parkland to be “well drained and suitable for use as an open playfield”, and eliminated a requirement that water and wastewater connections should be available.

In other business this week, the Council voted to repeal a resolution adopted Nov. 20 that authorized the City to begin involuntary annexation proceedings on 329.8 acres into the city limits.

Mayor Fuller said the City missed the deadline for getting letters into the mail to impacted property owners allowing the annexation to occur before the end of the year.

She said the involuntary annexation will be brought back to council for action during the first quarter of 2018.

Also Monday, the Council voted to authorize the creation of a job description and salary range for a new position of City Engineer.

Branigan brought the item to the agenda suggesting the City might save money by having an engineer on staff as opposed to sending everything to Steger Bizzell, its contracted engineering firm.

“I’m not implying that there is a problem with what is going on with Steger Bizzell,” Branigan said.

City Administrator Greg Boatright said the City would continue to use the firm for some projects, but the employee could handle plat review and other things that could help them be more responsive. He said staff will compare the costs of adding the position with the funds spent on such projects with the outside firm to determine if the idea is cost effective.

The Council voted 4-1, with Branigan opposed, to approve a $46,800 task order for Halff Associates Inc., to design a Liberty Hill Trails Master Plan. The plan would provide for connection between Liberty Hill trails and trails maintained by other jurisdictions like Georgetown, Leander and Williamson County.

The City of Liberty Hill is currently working on a trail system that will connect City Park on CR 200 to downtown and Lions Foundation Park. The proposed Trails Master Plan would provide a long-range plan for connecting to neighboring parkings and communities.

“We have a chance as a city to take the lead and coordinate a regional trail,” said Boatright, noting the success of the Brushy Creek Trail system and the economic development it has spawned around it. In the end, Liberty Hill could be part of 30 miles of connected trails in the northwest part of the county.

Branigan said he isn’t opposed to parks and connecting trails, but told The Independent he thought the price for the five-month design project was too high.

Also Monday, the Council voted 4-1, with McLeod voting no, to authorize Boatright and staff to work with the City’s financial advisor and legal counsel to create a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) in the City. The Council heard an hour-long presentation from financial advisor Jim Sobanis of First Southwest (A Division of Hilltop Securities) on the benefits of designating a TIRZ and heard examples of other cities that had used the mechanism of tax increment financing to make improvements to downtown areas and other commercial districts to promote economic development.

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