After city votes for eminent domain on land in Northwest Austin, developer likely to fight procedure in court

(Photo courtesy David Kahn)
(Photo courtesy David Kahn)

(Photo courtesy David Kahn)

After nearly a handful of years of site plan submissions, citizen petitions and negotiations, the city of Austin is now seeking to acquire a contentious plot of land off Spicewood Springs Road in Northwest Austin.

Austin City Council during a special called July 29 meeting voted unanimously to begin eminent domain proceedings for approximately 11 acres of land at 6315 Spicewood Springs Road, Austin.

“This has been going on for a long time. Because of the critical environmental features on this property, which have impact potential on our water supply, we’ve been unable to find mechanisms that preserve that water quality,” Austin City Council Member Alison Alter said.

Council documents state that acquiring the land will help the city complete trail connectivity from the Upper Bull Creek Greenbelt to Canyon Vista Middle School.

But developer David Kahn, who owns the property, is pushing back against those claims.

“We offered [the city] a free easement for people to walk on the creek. It would be a 300-foot trail on the whole length. It would achieve everything the city wanted. ... They really wanted the whole property,” Kahn told Community Impact Newspaper.

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department in an email stated it is active in negotiations with property owners to secure land for trail connectivity in the Bull Creek area.

“Since 1971, PARD has acquired numerous tracts along Bull Creek to realize the vision of a connected greenbelt along this environmentally sensitive waterway. The Upper Bull Creek Greenbelt consists of approximately 168 acres of parkland, of which this property will be a part,” according to an email from the department.

The property itself neighbors the protected Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, and a portion of Bull Creek runs through Kahn’s land, which sits just south of St. Edward’s Park.

As it stands, the property remains undeveloped. Kahn submitted plans in November 2016 for an 11-story boutique hotel on the site, though Kahn eventually scaled back those plans. The Spicewood Lodge as it is currently proposed would be a five-story, 57-room “national parks-style lodge” developed on approximately 5% of the total 11-acre site, according to Kahn.

Less than a year after Kahn submitted—and then withdrew—the original site proposal, residents of the nearby Yaupon Bluffs Community Association launched an online petition asking City Council to preserve the land for park and trail use.

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the petition was posted after meetings between Kahn and Yaupon Bluffs surrounding the use and development of the property broke down.

Rick Brimer, vice president of the Yaupon Bluffs Community Association, said he and his neighbors continued to express concerns over the environmental impact of Kahn’s proposed nature lodge, even after Kahn scaled down its size.

“The more impervious cover you introduce into a watershed ... it just increases the amount of runoff,” Brimer said.

Eminent domain proceedings

Following council’s July 29 vote, Kahn told Community Impact Newspaper that he intends to file a lawsuit against the ruling in order to stop the eminent domain proceedings.

“It is an arbitrary and capricious trampling of my property rights,” Kahn said.

According to the Office of the Attorney General of Texas, the city of Austin must first make a “bona fide offer” to Kahn for his property. If the developer rejects the city’s offer, it may begin condemnation proceedings on the property, during which a special commissioners court will determine how much the property is worth.

Austin City Council documents show that city staff values the property at $4.5 million. Funds to purchase the property from Kahn will likely come from one of two sources, Alter said. The city can elect to use funds from the voter-approved 2018 bond for parks and recreation land acquisition, or the city can leverage developer fees to come up with the eminent domain funds.

Alter and Brimer both commented that they would prefer any potential park development on the land to be minimal in nature. Documents from the July 29 council vote show preliminary plans for property include picnic areas, a pavilion, parking spaces off Spicewood Springs Road and a nature trail.

Because so much of the property is in Bull Creek’s flood zone, Alter said any site work would have to exclude a lot of amenities that require concrete, such as playgrounds or courts.

“This is not being purchased with the idea of being a heavily developed park,” Alter said.

By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.