Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with comments from the Autism Society of Texas.
An unusual project is in the works for the River Place area in Northwest Austin, a proposed development that would involve an 82-home subdivision on 42 undeveloped acres and a center for autistic adults on a neighboring 40-acre tract.
The Autism Center Austin would be managed by Jonathan and Polly Tommey, a couple who established an autism trust in their native England in 2007 before moving to River Place in 2012 to seek additional treatment for their autistic son, Billy.
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 son, now 20.
MileStone has a contract to buy Bradley’s adjoining 42 acres for an undisclosed sum, to build 82 houses that would be priced in the $700,000 to $900,000 range.
The city of Austin’s Zoning and Platting Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing Tuesday on MileStone’s plan, which would require a zoning change to build more houses than current zoning allows. The Austin City Council will have the final say in the zoning case.
Proceeds from MileStone’s land purchase would go into a trust to help fund operations of the Autism Center Austin, which the Tommeys say could serve as a model for other U.S. cities and the larger global autism community.
MileStone is offering to pay for all site improvements for the autism center, as well as fund the first building in the complex.
The Autism Center Austin would provide housing for residents and staff, along with educational, vocational and therapeutic programs for 40 or more autistic adults, plus support services for their families, said Jonathan Tommey.
“The game plan is to build a very holistic, organic facility here, like a kibbutz,” said Tommey, a nutritionist by training. He is one of the founders of the Austin-based nonprofit Autism Trust USA and development director for the center.
For some, the Tommeys are controversial figures in the global autism community. They have made headlines over the years for their views on the causes of autism, having witnessed what they said was a regression into autism for their son following vaccinations. But the Tommeys have their legion of supporters as well, who view them as leaders in pushing for safe childhood vaccines and looking at potential susceptibilities in children.
Tommey said there are about 88,000 autistic adults in Texas lacking services and facilities, according to the nonprofit Sage Foundation.
In a Feb. 17 letter to Austin Zoning and Platting Commission Chairman Thomas Weber, landowner Berta Bradley urged support of the zoning change. Bradley said she is “acutely aware of the general lack of options” for facilities for autistic adults, and her dream is to create one that would provide “supportive and therapeutic living and vocational and educational opportunities for persons with autism.”
Bradley said she will donate the 40 acres to the Autism Center.
Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said her agency would need to know more about the autism center’s plans before determining whether it would require licensing from the state. Depending on the services offered and the needs of any residents, it is possible that such a facility “would require licensure and federal certification,” Williams said by email.
City zoning staff members have recommended a less dense residential project than what MileStone has proposed.
Scott Crosby, president of the River Place Homeowners Association, said the association supports a zoning change for the proposed autism center. But the group opposes rezoning for MileStone’s tract due to traffic concerns. Access to MileStone’s development would be from Milky Way Drive, a street that has about one house per acre.
MileStone’s request “will add 800 to 1,200 more car trips per day, which creates an unacceptable traffic safety issue, especially for the schoolchildren walking to and from the elementary school located just north of the proposed development,” Crosby said. “We feel Milestone should be willing to sacrifice some profit for traffic safety and still make the Autism Trust contribution.”
Garrett Martin, MileStone’s president and CEO, said its project would be consistent with the overall character of River Place. The project would place no more traffic onto Milky Way than would have occurred if the entire 82 acres were developed with one house per acre, MileStone said.
In a written statement, MileStone said, “We hope the city resists the call by some to create another wealthy suburban exclusive enclave that would only be for the very, very rich to placate the very, very rich.”
Nearby Austin Christian Fellowship Church has agreed to allow utility easements and access during construction through its property to minimize effects on Milky Way. Emergency access for fire and EMS vehicles for MileStone’s development also would be allowed through church property, as would bike and pedestrian access to the elementary school.
John Joseph, an Austin attorney representing the church, said Austin Christian Fellowship views the Autism Trust “as a direct extension of their mission — to know, love and serve others, especially those living with special needs,” and wants to see the Autism Center become a reality.
Suzanne Potts, executive director of the Autism Society of Texas, said that “while it’s great to have additional resources for our adults with autism, we certainly expect to learn more about this center and identify who will ensure licensing and oversight.”
“We hope that any program designed with adults with autism would include adults with autism in the development process and that the project team would be transparent with their funding,” Potts said. “With so many families with individuals with autism being already financially burdened, we hope the program would be affordable and within reach for a large majority of autism families. We would not support a segregated adult day hab for individuals with autism and are eager to learn more about this proposed center.”
Gabe Rojas, vice chairman of the city’s Zoning and Platting Commission, said the autism center “would serve need that hasn’t been well-served in the past.”
And he said that the River Place HOA’s contention that MileStone’s development would have a traffic safety impact “doesn’t carry much weight with me.”
“I’m living on a street that shares a road with an elementary school and that has more traffic than Milky Way will ever see,” Rojas said. “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.”
Rojas noted that there are similar houses and lot sizes in the area to what Milestone is planning to build.
“Essentially, I don’t think the proposed development density presents significant impacts to existing residents that would justify not granting (the higher-density) zoning to achieve the goal of building the autism center.”