For the city it was a way to give residents a space when the City Hall facilities would otherwise go unused. The City Hall facility has been reserved on weekends a total of 139 times since 2017, according to city documents.
South Austin Presbyterian Church, which is operated by residents Francesco and Rose Spadini, reserved the space over 100 of those times. The other reservations consisted of parties, weddings or meetings by individuals, none of which reserved the space more than three times.
City Council voted July 2 to cap the number of times a single entity could rent the space for a weekend day throughout the year at 12, effective Jan. 1. An entity will also be limited to using the space two weekend days in a single month, unless granted a variance by City Council.
The change comes after over 45 residents signed a petition asking City Council to consider a “fair and reasonable” use cap due to the usage habits of some in the community, specifically the church. The petition outlined problems residents had with the church using the city’s address as its permanent location and asked the city to consider limiting the kinds of uses allowed in the facility.
City Council had “failed to adequately address” the gap in the use policy that allowed a single entity to “control” much of the use opportunities, according to the petition. A use cap gives an “equal opportunity” to all residents, the petition stated.
Mayor Rosa Cardona said the church had been an accommodating tenant since it began using the facility in 2017 and has been following all the rules set through city policy. However, she said City Council had to evaluate its policy without considering specific uses, and “every renter should be treated the same way.”
“Everything that [Francesco] and his wife have done as sponsors of a rented use [was] allowed by the city,” she said. “There also haven’t been many complaints about the use specifically or how they leave the facility, so that’s not why we’re here tonight.”
Francesco said he had been using Sunset Valley because it was difficult to find a place willing to rent to a church and because of the pricing. However, instead of challenging the petition, he requested the city give him a grace period to relocate. Council made the new policy effective Jan. 1 as a compromise.
“I love my community, and I’m a pretty conflict adverse person, so it makes me deeply uncomfortable to be at the center of an issue that’s caused this much discontent,” he said. “While I have to admit I don’t fully understand all that has precipitated this petition, nonetheless it is clear that a significant number of residents have been impacted.”
Although City Council kept the current rate structure for use of its City Hall, it will consider options for rental of space at the city’s new police facility at a future meeting. Police Chief Lenn Carter said he would prefer a rate closer to market rate for the space as a way to keep uses at the police facility more professional.