City works to balance Hutto’s rapid growth

The city of Hutto will decide whether to seek project bonds before Feb. 17.

The city of Hutto will decide whether to seek project bonds before Feb. 17.

As Hutto grows, city officials said they face challenges in streamlining the city's development process.

A newer zoning option, called SmartCode, is being used by Hutto for the first time in a development named Brooklands.

On Oct. 20, the City Council approved Brooklands' rezoning, which allows high-density residential with a mandatory mix of commercial and parks. The 161.8-acre property at the southeast corner of CR 137 and FM 1660 South, will likely include 608 houses—built in six phases—16 acres of commercial property and 14 acres of pocket parks and open space. Developers are expected to review a preliminary plat with the Hutto Planning and Zoning Commission on Dec. 6.

Helen Ramirez, director of the development services department, presented an overview of the developer’s plans at the Oct. 13 City Council meeting. A week later, after forgoing a second reading of the rezoning request, council approved the change 7-0. Along with the approval, there was discussion of developing the city the right way, with a need to balance residential property tax revenue with commercial sales and tax revenue.

“The right development can bring a lot of people to the city, bring more job creation,” Ramirez said. “Employers look for attractive subdivisions for their employees. And developers and companies want to work quickly and get answers. There are a lot of steps in the process. It needs to be smooth.”

Brooklands' impact

The number of houses, with Ramirez’s formula of 3.02 people per household in Hutto, means another 1,836 residents with this project, the largest development in the history of the city, she said.

Hutto, through zoning and during the new project-approval process, is putting an emphasis on green amenities, trail connectivity, and designated walking trails and biking lanes.

Ramirez said the city has had discussions with the Hutto ISD to connect the neighboring schools to the Brooklands neighborhood.

“It will be comfortable and safe,” Ramirez said. “There will be tree-lined streets and walkability is an important factor with wider sidewalks and more bike lanes. The streets would be wider than the development code [requirements].”

A development the size of Brooklands will continue the steady climb of Hutto’s population, which, according to U.S. Census numbers, was 1,250 in 2000 and 14,698 in 2010. Ramirez said the latest number, based on building permits and other city data collected since the last census, has Hutto at 23,296 residents.

It joins neighboring cities Round Rock, Pflugerville, Georgetown, Cedar Park, Leander and Buda with high percentage growth the past several years, making the Austin market the fastest growing in the United States, according to a Forbes magazine story published March 8.

Hutto officials, from city hall, the Hutto Area Chamber of Commerce and the Hutto Economic Development Corp., tout the schools, parks, services, availability of land, access to highways and proximity to Austin as making it desirable for developers.

The HEDC is in constant contact with companies looking to build in the area, according to its President and CEO Tim Chase.Joe Warner/community impact newspaper

Efficiences sought

One project does not define Hutto’s growth. Several are underway in various stages. Ramirez updated the council and city officials at an Oct. 20 council work session, pointing out efficiencies that could be built in the system to allow projects to move forward quicker after planning and zoning’s due diligence.

She talked about the start-to-finish steps a developer follows for different projects underway in the city, including apartment buildings; a retail shopping center; office complexes; historic preservation; expansion; single-family housing; and a large development, the Star Ranch H-E-B Plus, a 120,000-square-foot store at SH 130 and Gattis School Road, with another 15,000 square feet of retail space.

Rooftops vs. revenue

A sticking point with elected officials in Hutto comes with the approved and pending mixed-use developments. Mayor Doug Gaul and Council members Nate Killough and Lucio Valdez were among the vocal council members voicing concerns about too much residential growth without the balance of retail and commercial properties.

Although the developer has agreed to allocate more than 16 acres for commercial and retail property, many on council wondered aloud if they could encourage builders to develop commercial property first.

“We have a ton of rooftops, but we don’t have the money to support them,” Killough said, explaining revenue from business sales tax, along with their property tax, help drive a city’s economy.

Ramirez said commercial development is likely to begin as more residents come. She said developers are motivated to build out commercial property because of the premium on sales and rent.

City Attorney Charlie Crossfield said it is up to the landowner when he or she would like to develop his or her property, though the council can control projects by holding firm with zoning decisions. Crossfield said if the landowner wanted to switch commercial property back to residential or another use, the council could vote against that.

Recreational opportunities

Another integral part of Hutto’s development is its parks and recreation system.

Larry Foos, who moved his family to Hutto a few months ago to become director of the parks and recreation department, said the city is following its master plan set last year.

“Parks and recreation development is so important to the region,” Foos said. “We need to find our niche. We need to look at what other communities are doing, and we need to do it right. You get one chance.”

Foos said his department’s focus includes regional trail connectivity, improving current facilities, developing new opportunities and seeking other park land acquisitions.

“It needs to be a priority, because the land is only going to get more expensive,” Foos said.

Youth programs are available and popular in Hutto. Hundreds of children participate in a variety of programs, including baseball, softball, basketball and cheer each year.

“Our youth associations are really going strong,” Foos said. “We have good fields ... We don’t have enough. We’re working to upgrade facilities, and we’ve presented to the bond committee about the needs for recreation.”

The department is also applying for grants through Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

“We’re doing everything we can to bring more funding for opportunities,” Foos said.

Foos said the city is continuing a $3.3 million renovation of Fritz Park, scheduled for a February completion. Upgrades include a new playground, concession stand and restroom facility, field upgrades, additional parking and connecting the trail along Cottonwood Creek.

“Parks and recreation have to grow with the city,” Foos said.

What’s next

Ramirez and members of the City Council and HEDC said they are committed to fine-tuning the development process from the beginning. “There’s a lot going on right now,” Ramirez said. “We’re busy.”

By Joe Warner
Joe Warner is executive editor of Community Impact Newspaper. He previously served as managing editor for Central Texas and senior editor of the flagship Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto newspaper. He came to Central Texas from Metro Detroit, where he was editor and general manager of several daily and weekly publications. He is the former president of the Michigan Press Association and was on the MPA board of directors for nine years.