Panel opts for less-dense zoning change for planned NW Austin project

A city of Austin panel recommended a zoning change that would scale back the number of homes a local developer could build on 42 acres in Northwest Austin.

MileStone Community Builders had requested zoning changes for two tracts in the River Place area — one 40 acres for a proposed autism center and another 42 acres for a subdivision with 82 homes.

MileStone previously said that proceeds from its purchase of the 42-acre site would go into a trust to help fund operations of the Autism Center Austin, a planned facility that would provide housing for residents and staff, along with educational, vocational and therapeutic programs for 40 or more autistic adults, according to its operators.

The city Zoning and Platting Commission approved the zoning changes for the proposed autism center, but went with a city staff recommendation for a less dense housing project, with minimum lot sizes of 30,000 square feet.

The Austin City Council will have the final say on the zoning change.

MileStone Community Builders said its proposed subdivision would be in line with the majority of homes in the River Place development off RM 2222 and River Place Boulevard. MileStone said the zoning change would provide greater building flexibility and ensure the construction of the autism center.

MileStone said the city panel’s vote casts doubt on prospects for the autism center.

“We are disappointed with the vote… this definitely puts the future of the Autism Center Austin in jeopardy,” MileStone said in a written statement.

MileStone said its proposed 82-home subdivision is “equally dense or less compact than the overwhelming majority of homes in the River Place development.”

The zoning commission voted 6-4 in line with a city staff recommendation for a less dense residential project.

“I thought the staff recommendation was reasonable and fair to all parties,” said Jolene Kiolbassa, a member of the Zoning and Platting Commision. “It’s aligned with what the zoning is on the adjacent residential parcels.”

Access to MileStone’s development would be from Milky Way Drive, a street with about one house per acre. The River Place Homeowners Association opposed MileStone’s request for a denser project, citing concerns about additional traffic in an area with an nearby elementary school.

Earlier this week, Gabe Rojas, vice chairman of the Zoning and Platting Commission, said the traffic-safety argument of nearby residents “doesn’t carry much weight with me.”

“I think it’s more of a way to say … ‘I want like houses by my houses,’ but the city has a policy of having mixed housing in all areas of the city.”

Jimmy Flannigan, a newly elected Austin City Council member whose district includes the proposed MileStone project, said he will look at the project with an eye toward whether it meets the city’s aims for “compact and connected”development as Austin grows.

He said there are concerns by some in the community whether MileStone’s proposed project achieves that goal. He said he is “still listening to the community” and wants to “hear the perspectives of my colleagues” before taking a position.

Jonathan and Polly Tommey, both autism activists, are behind the Autism Center Austin.

The Tommeys live in a house on the 40-acre portion of the 82 acres, land that for decades has been owned by 85-year-old Berta Bradley. The Tommeys care for Bradley’s 47-year-old autistic son, Kent Bradley, along with their own son, Billy, 20.

MileStone has a contract to buy Berta Bradley’s adjoining 42 acres. Proceeds would go into a trust to help fund operations of the autism center.

The Tommeys established an autism trust in their native England in 2007, before moving in 2012 to River Place to expand their and the trust’s work in the autism field.

For some in the global autism community, the Tommeys are controversial figures. They have made headlines for their views on the causes of autism, having witnessed what they said was a regression into autism for their son, Billy, following vaccinations. But the Tommeys’ supporters view them as leaders in pushing for safe childhood vaccines and looking into potential susceptibilities in children.

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