By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The same set of controversial revisions to the Unified Development Code rejected by city staff and City Council last year will be re-submitted to Council by the recently resurrected UDC Advisory Committee.
In a unanimous vote at its meeting July 20 — the third in as many weeks — it was motioned by committee member Clyde Davis and seconded by Wes Griffin. Both appointees serve on the Planning & Zoning Commision, where Davis serves as Chairman.
“I hope that we can revisit the code on an annual basis,” said Committee Chair Jon Branigan, who became a Council member in May.
Councilman Ron Rhea said the re-appearance of one recommendation in particular, related to variances from the code, would compel him to return to Council provided his health allows.
Health complications in the last six months have prevented Rhea from attending Council meetings since January.
The UDC is a rulebook for developers in the city and its surrounding extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). It addresses specific details for construction standards, applications, zoning and more
Last year, Council appointed the UDC Advisory Committee from the entirety of the Planning & Zoning Commission and several Council appointees. The committee was tasked with combing through the UDC and coming up with a list of recommended changes.
While a majority of recommendations made last year by the committee concerned grammar and improved clarity in the code, many proposed structural changes that would loosen restrictions.
The committee’s members believed those changes—such as creating a separate board for resolving disputes between the city and developers, or re-opening the grounds for developers to use the county’s building codes — would promote more commercial and residential development in the city.
Roughly two-thirds of their recommended changes were ultimately adopted by Council. The remaining third largely were those changes giving developers more flexibility with the city guidelines.
At the time, Branigan voiced a concern that the presentation of the committee’s recommendations to Council fell to city staffers, who had also submitted their own competing set of recommendations.
The complaint has been a consistent note in recent weeks. After taking office on the Council in May, having run unopposed for the seat previously held by his mother, he raised the concern at his first Council meeting.
He said the Council had deferred to staff recommendations in most cases where staff and committee opinions differed.
The disagreement briefly erupted again in an April meeting of the Council. Mayor Connie Fuller said that it was “unfair” that Branigan alone had been tasked with defending the advisory committee’s recommendations.
Since taking office, Branigan has made reconvening the committee a top priority.
The new committee met for the first time June 27, a full year after their last session. At the committee’s first meeting, members agreed that city staff should not attend their meetings going forward. Their second meeting July 5 was publicly posted, but held entirely in executive session.
Discussion at the third meeting, held last Thursday, was brief.
“I think we were real thorough last time,” said committee member Chris Pezold. He said the chance to amend the code presented an opportunity for Liberty Hill to forge its own development path forward. “Let’s try to keep the liberty alive.”
“Y’all started a lot of this before I came into it, but I read through it carefully,” said Cheryl New, who was not on the committee last year. “From what I saw, it’s with good reason that you’re all standing by it. So I think the Council should be open to it.”
Until now, it was an open question even among members of the committee whether they would be conducting another review of the UDC for a new set of recommendations, or re-submitting the same recommendations they made last year.
Branigan has frequently said that reconvening the advisory committee and reviewing the code was made necessary by changes in the city in the last 12 months.
One such recommendation concerned the creation of a separate government body in the city to handle appeals from developers seeking waivers on certain restrictions specified by the UDC.
To date no such disputes have been filed, though if they were, oversight for the administrative process would be handled by the Council.
City staff last year advised the Council that because most small cities do not have enough disputed cases to warrant the expenses of a separate “Board of Adjustments,” Council should be retained as the overseeing body. The Council voted unanimously in agreement with staff.
The prospect of this recommendation reaching Council again prompted Council Member Ron Rhea to tell The Independent last week that he would be back in August to vote the proposal down, “even if they have to wheel me in.”
Rhea has been absent from Council meetings since he suffered a massive heart attack in late January. Further complications, including a second heart attack in June, have also delayed his return.
Rhea, a bishop at Life Springs Church, said his opposition to the proposal stemmed from his own research, and that the people involved with the committee were public servants who have done much good for the community.
Nevertheless, he said that he could not find another Type A General Law City— the municipal structure of Liberty Hill— that had a separate Board of Adjustments.
He said that the proposal did not meet a high enough standard of “common sense” to overcome a potential self-interest, as the committee is composed mostly of local developers and business people.
Branigan declined to comment in an email whether the creation of a separate Board of Adjustments would be included in the committee’s submission of last year’s recommendations again.
Another significant and defeated recommendation from the committee last year concerned the creation of a two-track code in the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the city.
The UDC currently includes references to provisions being graded on a scale between “most” and “least” restrictive.
In the past, this flexibility was important in Liberty Hill’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. There the city’s own development codes competed with the county’s, and developers had room to defer to one or the other.
That is no longer the case.
In 2014, Williamson County entered into an interlocal agreement with Liberty Hill that stipulates the city’s UDC as the “single unified set of regulations for plats in the ETJ.”
Adopting the committee’s recommendation then would have required overturning the interlocal agreement and creating a newly complicated enforcement of the UDC inside the ETJ.
In the June 2016 meeting, Council asked the committee to go back and review language concerning “most” and “least” in the UDC. No further meetings to resolve the question ever occurred. City Administrator Greg Boatright said in April that while several meetings had been planned, none had panned out.
The loose end meant that Council never voted on a final ordinance that would have updated the code as it is posted online with the new revisions. The code online shows no changes from the committee, or from the staff.
Branigan has pointed to this as another cause for confusion among the committee’s members as to which of their recommendations were approved and which were not.
Going forward, the fate of the committee’s re-submitted recommendations in a future Council meeting remain uncertain.
Rhea said the prognosis for his health, and the time frame for his return to Council, depend on the results from several hospital tests slated for early August.
The addition of Branigan to the Council means that, along with Wendell McLeod, there are now two UDC Advisory Committee members on the Council. Last year, McLeod voted with the rest of Council against the disputed provisions submitted by the Committee.
However, the Council meeting in April this year hinted that McLeod may have changed some of his opinions.
That meeting saw the first talk of a newly convened UDC Advisory Committee. McLeod accused city staff of having overridden many of the committee’s recommendations that were approved.
Boatright and City Planner Sally McFeron denied the claim, and the ensuing conversation proved divisive.
The Mayor defended McLeod’s frustrations. In a related threat, she said that what the Council voted on 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.”
In the event of a tie between Council members, Mayor Fuller would cast the tie-breaking vote.
Beyond them the advisory committee includes Jack Garner, Wes Griffin, Clyde Davis, Cheryl New, Lance Dean, and Chris Pezold.
Last Thursday’s meeting did not include Dean, McLeod or Garner.
The next Council meeting is set for August 14.