Judge's Pilot Knob Ruling Seems to Have Little Effect on City Development Deal
In a late Friday ruling, a district judge sided with a local activist against the City of Austin, voiding a December vote taken by city council members on the housing development Pilot Knob. Called Easton Park, the development plans to offer 1,500 apartments and 6,500 single-family homes in southeast Travis County.
The lawsuit, brought by local activist Brian Rodgers in February, alleged that the city violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. Rodgers argues the case referred to the item only as a planned unit development (PUD)* zoning case and, at the time of a December vote, made no mention of the diversion of tens of millions of dollars in fees from city departments into an affordable housing fund.
Judge Stephen Yelenosky effectively erased that favorable zoning vote on Friday.
"I think it's unfortunate that a citizen had to file the lawsuit," said Council Member Ora Houston. "It would have been, to me, the right thing to admit that an error was made and vote to rescind."
And, while it’s as if that December vote never happened, in talking with Mayor Steve Adler, council members and their staff, it’s unclear how, if at all, this will affect the city’s deal with the developer.
Attorney for the developer, Richard Suttle, did not return requests for comment, but a spokesperson for the city said Tuesday city attorneys had not had adequate time to review the case.
But Mayor Adler said he understood the ruling as just a slap on the wrists of city staff.
“The ruling that came from the court said that the staff had not posted the matter correctly, which is a procedural question,” said Adler. “If we need to do it differently procedurally, then we will. But the judge did nothing to question what it was that we had done, or the propriety of what we had done, and I’m encouraged by that.”
While Rodger’s suit also questioned the legality of the city’s diversion of fees, the judge wrote he could not rule on that because the violation of state law voided the vote.
Adler said that, while the city could decide council members have to take a revote, that’s what was effectively done in March. After several council members cried foul, saying they were not fully aware of the deal’s inner workings, the Austin City Council opened a new zoning case in March.
As part of that new case, council members voted to amend the diversion of fees, opening for themselves the option that the fees, or a portion of them, could be used for other projects – not solely affordable housing.
“The only question was, was did the council want the ability, if the water department did not need that much money, did the council want the ability to be able to steer that money toward promoting housing that’s affordable in the city,” said Adler.
That measure was then sent to boards and commissions. According to one council staffer, that should come back to council members in either December or January.
But on Tuesday, Council Member Delia Garza, one of the architects of the deal, reiterated her hope that these development fees will still be put in a coffer for affordable housing.
“I still believe we have to put a priority on affordable housing,” said Garza.
*An earlier version of the story referred to Pilot Knob as a public utility district (PUD). Rather, the acronym in this case refers to a planned unit development.