Judge voids Austin approval of controversial development

Austin city leaders did not give the public a proper heads up of what they intended to do before voting to waive environmental regulations for a controversial housing development, a judge ruled Tuesday.

The ruling marks the second time in just over a year that the city of Austin has been sued and lost for Open Meetings Act violations. Both suits came from former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, an open government attorney.

In an unrelated case, the American-Statesman is suing the city of Austin alleging Open Meetings Act violations during a Nov. 2 executive session to conduct interviews of city manager candidates. Intent on evading the media and keeping the candidates secret, council members raced away from the posted meeting location in vans to an undisclosed location, later found to be a meeting room behind federal security checkpoints in the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The Statesman believes the actions were illegal.

Aleshire challenged Austin in June over the agenda posting for the Champions tract development, a planned apartment complex near RM 2222 and Loop 360. On behalf of a local watchdog group called the Lake Austin Collective, he argued the zoning change listed for the public ahead of the meeting gave no indication that the City Council might waive watershed regulations to allow more of the site to be covered by pavement and buildings — which the council did.

BACKGROUND: Attorney suing Austin over zoning vote: ‘Some People Just Never Learn’

Aleshire first asked council members to simply redo the vote. When they declined, he sued.

“Chalk this case up to the category ‘Some People Just Never Learn,’” Aleshire wrote in the opening line of his lawsuit.

After hearing arguments from Aleshire and Assistant City Attorney Matthew Tynan last month, Travis County District Court Judge Scott Jenkins this week ruled for Aleshire and declared the vote on the tract void. It was not immediately clear how that could impact the development.

The ruling comes after a similar one last year, which overturned a council vote granting utility fee waivers of $50 million to $80 million for the Southeast Austin development Easton Park, also known as Pilot Knob. A judge ruled that, because the posting mentioned only rezoning of the property, it did not give the public enough notice to weigh in on the fee waivers.

The council voted on the Champions development on Nov. 10, 2016 — the same day it voted on a redo of the Easton Park zoning, minus the fee waivers that had been overturned.

RELATED: Judge strikes down city of Austin’s Easton Park development deal

“On Council meeting agendas, don’t try to hide waivers to developers by not clearly giving public notice because, if you do, you’ll be back in court every time,” Aleshire wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday.

He added that any similar cases that have occurred within the last four years, the statute of limitations for Open Meetings Act cases, could still be vulnerable to being declared void, so even developers and lobbyists should want more detailed wording of what votes on potential deals may include.

Mayor Steve Adler could not immediately be reached for comment. The city issued an emailed statement saying officials are still figuring out what to do next.

“While we are disappointed in the ruling, we appreciate the court’s thoughtful consideration of this matter,” it said. “We are committed to following the Open Meetings Act. In light of the judge’s decision, we will assess our options, and will advise council accordingly.”

Check back for updates to this story.

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