Controversial Driftwood wedding venue passes P&Z

A 5-1 recommendation to approve a controversial Driftwood wedding venue was handed down by the Dripping Springs Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday, but not without protest.

More than 100 people packed into Dripping Springs City Hall for a public hearing on the site development permit, with many voicing opposition to the Mark Black Wedding venue, located on a 64 acre plot of land that can hold a capacity of 600 people in a residential area.

Commissioner Erich Oswald cast the lone dissenting vote on the proposed project. The Dripping Springs City Council will determine the fate of the permit on Feb. 13.

The committee’s decision came after two-plus hours of public hearing and deliberation. Mark and Michael Black, who applied for the permit, attended the meeting, along with representatives from the project’s architecture and development groups.

Black said Tuesday because the permit was approved as-is, his team didn’t anticipate making any architectural changes to the venue.

On Jan. 23, the News-Dispatch reported Black as having a few clients already lined up for the venue, and none of them have a guest list that would be beyond 200 people. The 600-person guest list is a maximum number of potential people, and most weddings do not reach that capacity, Black said.

Black said he and State Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) are planning to talk with county officials for ways of alleviating some of the community’s concern, according to an earlier News-Dispatch report.

A line of people stand waiting for their turn to speak during a public hearing on a controversial Driftwood wedding venue Tuesday. (Photo by Exsar Arguello)

The site of the Mark Black Wedding Venue is located in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), which made the process a little more difficult.

One of the main concerns from the surrounding communities was the lack of infrastructure in and out of the venue area. The venue, which will be located on West Concord Circle, which connects to Crystal Hill Drive, only has one main road in and out.

More than 500 residents live along Crystal Hill Drive; the road is an unlit, two lane county road that is the only point of access in and out of the venue’s projected site.

Many residents were concerned about traffic and safety, as well as potential evacuation issues in the case of a fire.

Since Crystal Hills Drive is a county road located in the ETJ, P&Z has no power over the potential renovations or expansion of the road. Any decisions on roads would have to come from county officials.

Despite community concern about the road and potential hazards that may be presented, North Hays County Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Scott Collard reviewed and approved the plans and standards for the site.

Carlos Torres-Verdin, president of the Friendship Alliance, a non-profit homeowners association representing the affected neighborhoods around the venue’s site, outlined potential risks involved with the development in a presentation to P&Z.

One issue extended to the possible number of vehicles traveling on Crystal Hill Drive. With a maximum of 600 people in attendance at the wedding venue, an estimated 300 cars could be coming in and out of Crystal Hill Drive, said Saimak Ardekani, a traffic impact analyst representing the Friendship Alliance, who spoke on potential traffic issues related to the project.

In the case of an emergency evacuation, it could take more than an hour for venue attendees to evacuate the property onto FM 1826, assuming a wildfire could be contained at the site, according to presentation slides.

That may leave limited access to the entrance and exit the facility. In the case of an emergency, traffic along the road could potentially barricade residents and hinder access from city and emergency officials, Ardekani said.

Cristian Granucci, a current Los Angeles, California, Fire Captain who resides in Driftwood, cited the potential fire hazards on Crystal Hill, which he said is surrounded by a dense fuel bed of cedar and other flammable vegetation.

“I know we’re in the ETJ, but someone has to throw us a bone here,” Granucci said. “Fireworks, sky lanterns and cigarettes are all pose inherent risks to the safety of our community.”

The News-Dispatch reported Black added two, 40,000-gallon tanks of water on the 64-acre property that will be available for emergency services for not only the venue, but also the surrounding area.

Oswald noted the amount of deliberation and controversy from the community was substantial enough to cast a dissenting vote.

“I’m uncomfortable when a project like this comes before the Planning and Zoning committee and there is this much registered neighbor and community discontent,” Oswald said. “Especially after there was no formal meeting between the developer and the concerned residents after numerous attempts.”

A series of illustrative renderings show what architects envision for a wedding venue that will be built along Crystal Hill Drive in Driftwood. (Photo by Exsar Arguello)

Commissioner Michael Lavengco said the committee needs to make the community aware that there are certain restrictions P&Z has in respect to the ETJ. The commission has no decision making process with issues outside of its jurisdiction in the ETJ.

“We’re going to move through city council and we’ll go from there,” Black said. “There is a lot of misinformation around and a lot of that was called out tonight. The city did a good job of clearing that up. The community has raised concerns that have made this project better so really I thank a lot of them for coming out and they’ve made our project better.

Black said the venue will be a place everyone can enjoy, and it will not be the way the community has made it out to be.

According to venue blueprints, which were revealed at the meeting, two separate reception halls will account for about 12,000 square feet, which will be located and the Northwest and Northeast areas of the property.

“I am disappointed with the committee’s decision tonight,” Torres-Verdin said. “When you have as much scientific data and analysis as we did, it’s extremely difficult to come to terms with the decision. This isn’t over. We still have council and we will continue to push on.”

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