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Houston council passes buffer zone between homes, high rises


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After months of discussion, debate and refinement, the controversial buffering ordinance, which requires a 30- to 40-foot buffer between a 75-foot or higher building and adjacent residential neighborhoods, was passed Monday by the Houston City Council. But, even after those months of discussion, the ordinance still had to undergo one last heated debate before passage.

The debate surrounded Councilman Oliver Pennington's proposal to delay the vote on the ordinance for 60 days, or until administration saw fit to present it again to council. Pennington said he had received requests from representatives of the Super Neighborhoods Alliance to delay the vote because people in their communities didn't fully understand the ordinance, specifically, how the major activity centers as designated by the ordinance (such as Memorial City and the Energy Corridor, which are exempt from the buffering ordinance) would be impacted by it. Later, Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she had received similar communications and asked how single-family residential areas adjacent to major activity centers would be affected.

Councilwoman Jolanda Jones said the people who contacted her about the ordinance said they had not been fully apprised of its intention. "There should be more discussion, not less," she said.

Outgoing Councilwoman Sue Lovell spoke adamantly against delaying the vote, telling the council that, since it was her last meeting, she would speak to them as a private citizen, and made reference to the potential development at Lancaster Square at West Alabama and Dunlavy, which she said was in her own neighborhood. The permits for development, she said, could be processed within the 60 days requested by Pennington, meaning the development would be subject only to the ordinances in effect at the time the permits are issued. "Please vote to protect your neighborhood, my neighborhood," she said.

Lovell also pointed out that the Super Neighborhoods Association had been presented with information about the ordinance. As previously reported by the Examiner, the planning commission met with the Super Neighborhoods Alliance in November.

She added that delaying the vote would only lead to future complaints by residents." If we delay on this now, we will have people here next year asking 'why are they building a high-rise 10 feet away from a door?'" The current buffer requirement in Houston is 10 feet.

Mayor Annise Parker also spoke against delaying the vote. "There's nothing to be gained by slowing this process down," she said.

Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck said the resistance she had heard from the community was that the 30- to 40-foot buffer zone wasn't enough, but said opposition to the ordinance on that ground was a risky game. "This is a good ordinance. It's not the best...I've got people saying it's too incremental...But sometimes, that's how we do it," she said. "If we want stronger restrictions later, we can have the council amend it."

Councilman Stephen Costello agreed. "We will never have something that everyone is going to like. What we have is a compromise, and I think it's a good compromise."

The motion to delay was defeated, and the ordinance passed 10-5. Pennington, Jones, Stardig, Councilman James Rodriguez and Councilman Mike Sullivan voted against the ordinance.

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