Proposed Autism Center in Jeopardy After Panel Rejects Zoning Change for Subdivision

Feb 23, 2017

The future of a residential facility for adults with autism is in limbo after a vote by a city of Austin commission.

Autism Center Austin’s proposed home is 40 acres of an 82-acre lot just south of FM 2222 in West Austin. The owner of the land, Berta Bradley, split the lot, gifting half to nonprofit Autism Trust USA and hoping to sell the other to MileStone Community Builders. The developer plans to construct high-end single-family homes on the land.

But while Zoning and Platting commissioners recommended approving the zoning change needed to build the residential center, they would not do the same for the proposed housing development, citing its proposed density.

Project representatives say it’s "all or nothing."

Bradley’s 47-year-old son, Kent, has autism.

“[Bradley] has the need to provide for the long-term care of Kent,” her lawyer, Jeff Howard, told the commission Tuesday. “And that involves the sale of this real estate.”

The developer reached a deal with Bradley to pay for the center’s site improvements and first building and to put a portion of proceeds from home sales in an endowment for the center.

“For 19 years, I’ve been interviewing families around the world and visiting centers to talk about what we’re going to do when our children are adults,” said Polly Tommey, who founded the nonprofit behind the proposed Autism Center Austin. She has said the center could serve as a template for others.

“First of all, we will not be giving mindless psychotropic drugs like so many others do. We will take them. We will find their skills,” she said. “Every single person, no matter if you’re verbal or not, has a skill or gift in life. We just have to find it.”

In what was often emotional testimony, parents spoke Tuesday about what a residential facility for adults with autism could mean.

“These children are going to be on the streets,” said Heidi Carabine, the mother of a 21-year-old son with autism. “They’re going to be latchkey kids. They’re not going to be protected. They’re going to be harmed. You guys have the chance to vote yes to this project that can keep these children alive and thriving and to bring out the best of their abilities.”

Neighbors said they were concerned about traffic, although a study done by city staff found that any increased traffic was not enough to oppose the development on those grounds.

The proposed center would be run by Tommey and her husband, Jonathan, who care for a 20-year-old son with autism along with Bradley’s son Kent.

Tommey holds widely debunked beliefs regarding the cause of autism. In an interview posted to YouTube, she said she regrets not questioning vaccine safety when her son was a child.

“I researched his cot, because I didn’t want him to die of cot death,” she said. “I researched his crib, his car seat, his food, everything, to be the perfect mother. But I didn’t once question that there could be a problem with vaccines, because my doctor didn’t say that there ever could.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has pointed to numerous studies that show there is no link between vaccines and autism.

It’s unclear how these beliefs will affect the services the Autism Center Austin provides. Representatives for the Tommey family said they were not available for comment Wednesday.  

Tommey also founded the Autism Media Channel, which has a website that features at least five videos starring Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Wakefield published a study, which has since been widely debunked, linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Wakefield, who now lives in Austin, was stripped of his medical license in the U.K.

Tommey is listed as a producer on Wakefield’s documentary, Vaxxed, which claims he was “falsely accused” of starting an anti-vaccine movement. The document centers on a so-called effort by the CDC to cover-up a “causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.”

The proposed autism center straddles Districts 6 and 10 in Northwest Austin. District 6 council member Jimmy Flannigan said a person’s beliefs are not the concern of city government when it comes to zoning cases.

“Zoning cases are about size and nature of buildings and traffic impact and park impact and community impact,” he said. “Whether or not someone is going to be promoting a bad theory, unless they’re doing it at a certain decibel level, I’m not sure that that falls under the applicable ways to zone property.”

Council Member Alison Alter, who represents District 10, did not return a request for comment.

The zoning recommendations for the center and the development head to city council next, unless the developer withdraws the application.

“This definitely puts the future of the Autism Center Austin in jeopardy,” MileStone said in an e-mail. “We are going to work hard to find a solution so we can build homes families can afford and a desperately needed center for adults with autism.”

This story was produced as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.