A group of Woodway residents and a local builder with an impressive track record butted heads last week, with the Woodway City Council caught in the middle.
At the end of a long and contentious meeting Monday, council members voted 4-3 to reject custom homebuilder Steve Sorrells’ request to place a Planned Unit Development between Ritchie Road and Merrifield Drive. He hoped to create there Hyde Park, an upscale subdivision with 40 homes, terraced lawns, a homeowners association, walking trail and “discreet” street access.
Still annoyed during an interview Friday, Sorrells used the word “mob” to describe the vocal crowd that showed up to protest his vision for the site. He said the council made two strategic mistakes in choosing their side over his, and that Woodway could face legal headaches down the road.
“I think it was very short-sighted on their part,” Sorrells said by phone. “Their reasoning is that Woodway is a bedroom community, that residential zoning is preferred, and it should always be that way.”
He said the city’s approach amounts to exclusionary zoning, “and from my perspective is illegal, immoral and unethical. Taking legal action is not my M.O., as anybody who knows me well will tell you, but I think there is danger to the city to continuously put on the record — something that has been going on more than 40 years, speaking bluntly — that other types of housing will be excluded. I think they are exposing themselves to legal action.”
With the blows he absorbed at the council meeting behind him, Sorrells said he will take a more conventional approach to developing the triangular-shaped site near the Midway Independent School District administration building. With a PUD, he said, he could tweak the Hyde Park project under city supervision, protecting its topography as best as possible while also building homes priced $500,000 or more on land with a 90-foot elevation change.
With no PUD, and with the R1 residential zoning still in place, Sorrells said he may face “whacking every tree” to make Hyde Park a reality. He will have wider lots and must pay more attention to the drainage needs of each homesite, whereas with a PUD he could take a more comprehensive approach.
Sorrells said he knows how to preserve “trees, streams, creeks and lakes,” having applied his expertise to the popular Badger Ranch subdivision in Woodway on a site previously thick with foliage. It has grown to nearly 200 homes, with prices ranging from the upper $300,000s to well over $1 million for residences on cottage, executive and estate lots, Sorrells said.
“Badger Ranch probably represents 10% of Woodway’s tax roll,” Sorrells said. “And Hyde Park is a pretty darn nice development. We estimate it would add $20 million to the tax rolls, when everything is said and done.”
Badger Ranch includes not one but two PUDs, Sorrells said.
Woodway Mayor Bob Howard, who voted to uphold the Woodway Plan Commission’s recommendation that the PUD be denied, said he could not ignore the will of the people. Opponents showed up in force at the planning and zoning hearing earlier in the summer and at Monday’s council meeting.
“The Plan and Zoning Commission unanimously rejected the idea, and that had to be taken into serious consideration,” Howard said by phone. “A lot of citizens made their feelings known by putting signs up and placing notices on doors. The feeling at the end of the day was that, ‘Hey, citizens of that area want this piece of property to look like the property around it.’ We probably had 75 to 85 people to show up against it.
“We know Steve wants to build a quality product, and he has a good working relationship with our staff. He’s going to look after the trees. But there was such an overwhelming negative response that we had to see if we could find an alternative.”
He said he has no doubt the PUD would have proven attractive.
“But the people who live in that area, some long-time residents with a lot invested in the community, said, ‘Not in my backyard,’ and they have a voice.”
Council members Keven Kehlenbach, Amine Qourzal and Scott Giddings joined the mayor in voting to reject the PUD.
Council members Jane Kittner, Barbara Grandy and Vic Sober voted to grant the PUD Sorrells proposed.
“I’m pretty disappointed,” Kittner said by phone. “I thought it was a good project for a challenging site with a large utility easement and 90 feet of elevation change. It was a nice way to work with the topography and the other site constraints while preserving a good number of trees.”
She said she frankly did not understand the vigorous opposition.
“It was not high density. It was a little different than what is typically seen, in terms of housing type, but I think it would have been appealing,” she said.
Sorrells, in his proposal, said Hyde Park would emote a European feel, “with an eclectic blend of multiple styles and materials.” They would be built at one-story, two-story and 2½-story heights, and include touches that hearken to French, Tuscan, British West Indies, traditional, modern farmhouse and craftsman architecture, according to the review presented the council.
Homes would be “tall and elegant,” with “narrow/linear themes.”
Rear alleys would afford access to garages, the proposal said.
“There are a lot of gorgeous trees on that site, and more of those large power lines will be visible when they’re gone,” Kittner said. “I’m afraid the result is not going to be what people were hoping for, that they are going to be very disappointed when the site is developed under the R1 zoning.”
Complicating the issue was the fact the council needed a supermajority to overturn the Plan Commission’s recommendation, meaning six of the seven council members would have to agree, Kittner said.
Sorrells said he was surprised by crowd’s tone at the council meeting.
He said a professionally moderated public forum held at Trinity Lutheran Church a week before the council meeting had produced a sizable turnout, productive give-and-take and a civil discussion of issues.
“I came away with the feeling I had a lot of support from neighbors,” Sorrells said. “Then came the council meeting, and it proved easy to fire up the mob by throwing out red meat. So many things were said in opposition, outright falsehoods and misstatements, and there was no opportunity for rebuttal.”
Kehlenbach, a council member who voted with the majority to deny the PUD, said constituents cannot be ignored.
“It makes sense to listen to the citizens who show up,” Kehlenbach said. “You have a heavy burden as a volunteer to come into that arena and hear overwhelming response against a development opportunity. I have close friends on both sides of the argument. I hope to see opportunities come back around, and I really want citizens to remain engaged in the discussion.”
Council member Sober said the council must become better stewards of the dwindling amount of land still available for development in Woodway.
He said he was impressed by Sorrells’ proposal and wondered why there was not an equal amount of opposition earlier in the meeting when the council approved a plat for a proposed PUD in the Western Heights area of Woodway he represents, not far from Crestview Church of Christ.
“I’m not a politician, but this strikes me as political in nature,” Sober said. “I didn’t see near the same level of people being upset when this came before the Plan Commission back in April, so I’m a little confused. We’re talking about almost an identical number of homes on even a smaller piece of land. I’m concerned about what developers think, not just Mr. Sorrells but others. If we are one community, Woodway, as I’ve heard time and time again, why do people protest PUDs on one side of town and not the other?”
Woodway City Manager Shawn Oubre said the PUD site Sober referenced previously had been zoned primarily for office development.