Complex apartment controversy continues Reply

By Around Dripping Springs

www.arounddrippingsprings.com

Area residents filled City Hall for a Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on July 24th, to discuss the proposed construction of a low-to-moderate-income apartment complex in Dripping Springs. More than 80 residents signed up to speak publicly about the controversial project. Photo Courtesy: Thomas Stuart Johnson Photography

Despite an overflow crowd at City Hall on Tuesday night, and opposition in the form of 1,800 resident signatures on petitions opposed to the controversial Cypress Creek complex planned for Ledge Stone, the City of Dripping Springs Planning & Zoning Commission voted to recommend approval of the project as proposed by the developer.

The vote by the P&Z Commission enables the developer to continue to move forward with the project as currently proposed, for consideration by City Council in August. Commissioners who voted to approve the site plan were Vice-Chair Danny Hubbard, Mim James, Whit Smith, and Ted Lehr. Opposed were Chair Larry McClung, Josef Martin, and Eric Burgeson.

ALL THOSE OPPOSED, SAY…

The 4-3 decision was a blow to local opposition efforts. Teresa Scott, who lives in the Ledge Stone subdivision adjacent to the proposed apartment complex site, began organizing opposition to the project back in February.

“I am shocked that the commission had the gall to disregard and blatantly ignore the wishes of over 1,800 citizens,” Scott said.

Scott, who was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting, said she has since received
plenty of angry emails and phone calls from residents who attended the meeting and reported being upset by several statements made during the proceedings.

“I was at the meeting, which went until 11:15pm or so,” said Amy Oliphant, who lives in one of the subdivisions near the proposed apartment site and is also opposed to the project. “I left early, just after they announced that their hands are tied and they really don’t have much power. People were upset to hear that after three hours of public discussion. Why they couldn’t let us know sooner what their limitations were, I will never understand.”

POLITICAL REALITIES

Bonner Carrington developer Stuart Shaw speaks at Tuesday evening’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting in Dripping Springs. Shaw has repeatedly told opponents to the project that he won’t build where he’s “not wanted.”

The development company, Bonner Carrington, is run by president Stuart Shaw, who has been actively campaigning around Dripping Springs for the Cypress Creek complex since
the beginning of the year. Shaw has spoken at school board meetings, met opposition leaders and city officials at various local restaurants, and made numerous visits to City Hall to advocate for his project designed to provide local housing for low-to-moderate income residents through government funded tax credits.

Throughout his campaign, Shaw has reminded residents that the City of Dripping Springs 2010 Comprehensive Plan and subsequent Implementation Guide specifically call for “affordable housing” to be built in the area. Dripping Springs City Planner Jon Thompson said that is one of the reasons he spoke in support of the project at Tuesday evening’s P&Z meeting.

“Whether or not people agree with this project, everyone agrees in general that we need affordable housing,” Thompson said in a phone interview on Friday.

ETJ vs City Limits

Thompson said his analysis of the project proposal has led him to agree with the sense that the city’s hands are tied by the political realities that govern the Dripping Springs area. The proposed location for the Cypress Creek complex, between the Ledge Stone subdivision and Trudy’s Four Star Restaurant along Highway 290 West, falls outside of the Dripping Springs city limits and squarely within the town’s Extra Territorial Jurisdiction, or ETJ.

What that boils down to is a complex set of if’s, and’s, and but’s for developers – armed with lawyers and legislators who know how to make it all work together for their good – and a lot of upset area residents, who don’t. Complicating matters, the proposed apartments at Ledge Stone fall under “limited purpose” jurisdiction for the city, meaning the city has a very small amount of authority to impact or influence the project. Then there are “old rules” and “new rules” that may or may not apply to the project based on a 2003 Bush Ranch agreement that is still relevant to the tract of land on which the apartment complex would be built.

By his own admission, Thompson said it’s sometimes difficult for him to keep straight, despite a degree and nearly 15-year career dealing with the complexities of Texas governance in rural counties and small cities like Hays and Dripping Springs. But one thing Thompson said he does know in the Cypress Creek scenario is that if the city – starting with the P&Z Commission – denies the cut & fill variance requested by Stuart Shaw’s team, then they can come back with a re-designed site plan without any variance requests and the city would have no jurisdictional authority over the project whatsoever, and no choice but to approve it.

Thompson said that is the primary reason city officials say they feel like their hands are tied, despite the strong opposition that has been expressed by many residents living in the Dripping Springs ETJ who are not eligible to vote directly in city processes.

“It these were all registered voters inside the city limits (that would be one thing), but with an ETJ project or limited purpose jurisdiction where we can’t zone it, we are limited and can only weigh the balance of the needs of all versus the opinions and concerns of the people who live in the area,” observed Thompson.

Teresa Scott challenges Thompson’s assertion that the project will happen with or without variances. Scott sees approval for the project as the city “rolling over and giving in” to Stuart Shaw.

“The city obviously sees some advantage or they could stop it. This is a cop-out in my opinion. The only way this will be passed is with support from the governing entities.”

According to Thompson, both he and some of the P&Z Commission members he has talked to have all been affected by the opposition expressed against the project but have had to remain focused on the civic realities.

“I heard everyone. But separating emotion from fact, I really don’t have much choice but to recommend it,” Thompson said.

 PILOT vs. Taxes

Making matters worse for residents who oppose the project is the touchy subject of taxes. The opposition’s original position against the Cypress Creek complex centered on the project’s qualifications for tax credits through the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs (TDHCA), which is Stuart Shaw’s hoped-for funding source. Shaw’s company, Bonner Carrington, has funded other tax-credit, low-to-moderate income projects in Austin and San Marcos.

But Shaw has also been paying attention to local opposition arguments and stole the group’s thunder at an April school board meeting, by publicly offering to pay his full share of taxes once the project is built, either though a governmental taxing authority or through a privately held PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) plan. The problem for opponents now, per Thompson, is that denying the developer the variance  requested and forcing the company to come back with a re-design that doesn’t seek any city-approved variances, also means no taxes or PILOT agreement benefit for the city.

“The city is not giving anything without getting something in return. If it’s going to happen, let’s make it happen right. Let’s get variances. Let’s get the PILOT,” said Thompson.

ALL THOSE IN FAVOR OF THOSE OPPOSED…

Despite the political realities that city officials say dictate the project must go forward with the city’s approval, two local elected officials gave a voice to those opposed to the Cypress Creek apartments on Tuesday night.

State Representative Jason Isaac and Hays County Commissioner Ray Whisenant both spoke in support of residents opposed to the project. Jon Thompson said that Commissioner Whisenant explained to him personally that the overwhelming sentiment expressed to his office by voters – which includes residents in the ETJ – has been against the project and he to represents that view as their elected representative.

Another primary opposition argument beside the question of tax payments, has been concern over the impact of possibly hundreds of new students from the proposed 240-unit apartment complex coming into the Dripping Springs Independent School District. It’s no secret that the DSISD contends it is already strapped for cash, due in no small part to the state’s so-called “Robin Hood” scheme that siphons tax money from property-rich districts like Dripping Springs, and redistributes it to property tax-poor districts throughout Texas.

However, if the city of Dripping Springs negotiates a privatized PILOT agreement with developer Stuart Shaw, instead of requiring him to pay taxes through a government taxation process, all of the money paid “in lieu” could remain in the district, rather than be redistributed elsewhere through Robin Hood. City planner Jon Thompson said he would like to see a PILOT plan put in place that would be based on a market-value appraisal for the project, with payments and disbursements to the DSISD and other local taxing authorities overseen by the city, rather than by the county or state. Not surprisingly, according to residents in attendance at the P&Z meeting, the DSISD has declared a neutral position on the proposed apartments project.

Other opposition arguments again raised on Tuesday evening about developing low-to-moderate income apartments in Dripping Springs, included concerns about crime, traffic, and public transportation issues.

“It was quite a passionate discussion,” said Amy Oliphant. “(There were) people claiming that just because they make $40k or less a year doesn’t make them ‘evil,’ as if we really think that!”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Next on the agenda for the developer, the city, the politicians, and the people for or against the Cypress Creek at Ledge Stone apartment complex, is the City Council meeting at City Hall on August 14th, when the council will consider the P&Z commission’s recommendation to approve the project as proposed. In preparation, Jon Thompson has said he is revising his report to the council to more fully explain his rationale.

Meanwhile, Teresa Scott continues to rally opposition to the project through the group’s Our Backyard Our Future blog by urging supporters to express their sentiments in writing to city hall before August 14th, as well as show up for the City Council meeting in even greater numbers. But Scott says she is also looking beyond Dripping Springs, and hoping to hit the developer where it hurts.

“If the city, the DSISD, the county commissioner, and state rep all wrote letters of opposition to the TDHCA, they would not grant (Shaw) the funding,” Scott said.

As for Shaw, despite all the developer’s efforts to state his case for striving to enhance Dripping Springs by helping to make it a more economically diversified community, Amy Oliphant said she thinks the project is more about the money.

“Personally, I don’t like businesses using government to fuel their profits. If you have a business that can stand on its own two feet, bring it on. In the end, this is just business for Mr. Shaw.”

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Stories previously reported on Around Dripping Springs about Cypress Creek complex:

https://arounddrippingsprings.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/complex-controversy-tale-of-two-letters/

https://arounddrippingsprings.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/citizen-group-opposes-apartment-complex/

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