Members of the Austin City Council approved a site-specific exemption to the Save Our Springs Ordinance on March 28, and the city entered into a settlement agreement with One World Theatre that will allow owners to move forward with development plans. The settlement lies at the heart of a major decision by the city to abandon a controversial ordinance limiting the grandfathering of development projects.
The settlement takes the steam out of a battle between Austin and One World Theatre owners over what governs the site – the 1982 Barton Creek Watershed Ordinance or the much more restrictive 1992 Save Our Springs Ordinance.
“The parameters for One World Theatre’s use of the site are now set by agreement rather than ordinance,” Dan Wheelus, one of the attorneys representing the theater, said Tuesday.
One World Theatre opened a two-story 300-seat theater and reception area in 1999 at 7701 Bee Cave Road on 8.3 acres in Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. The property was originally platted in 1985 as part of the Rob Roy on the Creek development.
The new settlement agreement requires One World Theatre to build a biofiltration facility, a garden with deep porous soil that will provide filtration for water runoff from the theater and Bee Cave Road. In exchange for the improved water quality effort, One World Theatre will have the go ahead to begin construction on a commercial kitchen and later an outdoor stage, the second and third phases of an amended site plan the city originally approved in 2003. The city will also release $150,000 in previously approved grant funding to the nonprofit organization that operates out of the facility. That grant money has been held from payment during the lawsuit.
Owners of One World Theatre sued the city of Austin last fall after more than a year of communications following the city’s 2011 stance that the 2003 site plan had expired. City officials said that the owners would now have to file a new site plan governed by the SOS Ordinance.
The issue was a critical one, because the earlier BCW Ordinance allowed One World Theatre to construct up to 35 percent of improvements or about 2.9 acres of construction on the 8.3-acre site. That allowed plenty of room under the originally approved site plan to construct a kitchen and outdoor stage. But under the SOS Ordinance, One World Theatre could only construct .28 acres of improvements. That meant neither the kitchen nor the outdoor stage could be built. It also meant the current theater building was out of compliance and would have to be torn down, Wheelus said.
“We had no choice but to fight this; we were forced into a corner,” said Harrt Stearns, who founded the One World nonprofit organization in 1997, along with his wife, Nada. “We did everything the city asked us to do for years. All indications from them were that everything was fine. It wasn’t until we had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and we were ready to turn dirt that the city said the permit was no good during a preconstruction meeting.”
City administrators recommended approval of the settlement agreement by the Council.
“The site has been, from an environmental standpoint and an environmental code compliance standpoint, in disrepair and non-compliance for years,” City environmental officer Chuck Lesniak told Council members during the March 28 meeting. “This agreement will get them to, at least from an environmental functionality standpoint, significantly improve the situation out there.”
While One World Theatre owners now have the hard-won go-ahead from the city to finally begin building a commercial kitchen, they may no longer have the money. More than two years of delays and disagreements have cost the theater nearly $400,000. That price doesn’t include the escalating cost of construction. The biofiltration system now required is estimated to cost an additional $50,000.
“With delays and attorney fees, we have been hemorrhaging money,” Stearns said. “This has gone on and on. We aren’t the type of organization that can easily take a loss like this.”
Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo was the lone vote against the One World exemption last week.
“As I looked at the terms of the [settlement] agreement and looked at what would be required under [the SOS Ordinance], I just could not get comfortable with the extent to which this would be in variance,” she said.
The issue at the center of dissention between city regulators and One World Theatre – expiring site plans – was at the heart of a much bigger issue for the City of Austin last week.
Facing pressure from the state and the Texas Legislature, the Austin City Council also voted on March 28 to repeal its controversial Project Duration Ordinance that set limits on how long a development could remain grandfathered under land-use rules in place at the time of the project’s conception. On Dec. 10, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion that the city ordinance was void because it conflicted with state law. State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) recently filed three bills in the Texas House that targeted the Project Duration Ordinance.
“Faced with that, it seemed to me that the simplest and most direct thing to do was to acknowledge that the ordinance was no longer applicable or enforceable, and we should just repeal it,” Council member Bill Spellman told “In Fact Daily” reporters March 28.
The Council hopes to have a new ordinance ready for consideration in May.
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