The Houston Planning Commission began their meeting at 5:35 p.m. on Monday, December 4, 2017, in the council chambers of Houston City Hall. In attendance were members Krin Abraham, Cheryl Sanden, Emliy Krage, and City Administrator Chris Peterson. Abraham called the meeting to order and asked for old business, of which there was none. The commission proceeded with the first item of new business, a proposed lease for the International Owl Center at the city’s Trailhead Park. Owl Center Executive Director Karla Bloem spoke to the commission and produced a planned map of the new center.
Under the new plan, the main Owl Center building would be built on land currently belonging to a small row of houses on Plum Street dating back about 100 years. There would be walking paths created from the new center to the land currently occupied by Trailhead Park, where the center plans to build several new walk-through aviaries for its owls to demonstrate different habitats and living situations for owls around the world. Bloem noted that the concepts for these aviaries are based off a design from the Bavarian National Forest in Germany and have not yet been used in America. The designs allow the owls, as part of their natural instincts, to stay a safe distance from the visiting people, allowing visitors to actually walk through the enclosed habitat and observe the owls in a more natural setting.
“It’s a better visitor experience…” Bloem said, “it’s much more mentally interesting when you don’t just go somewhere where there’s a row of cages.”
The commission raised questions about the construction of these aviaries and whether or not they would fit a definition of a building or a shelter, and also asked about the height of the structures. Bloem confirmed that the structures, designed by architects at Cornell University, would not require large amounts of fill and would mostly be made of mosquito netting, chain link, and similar materials, noting that not all structures would have a solid roof. Bloem also detailed separate aviaries that would be climate-controlled, and some used by employees only for birds used in Owl Center programs.
Abraham raised a question about the plan, asking if Trailhead Park had been established with a “swap” from other land. Sanden noted that, when the levy was redone, the former cornfields were purchased as part of a flood control project and converted into the current park. Abraham asked if part of South Park was sold as part of an in-kind trade, and as part of the purchase the city established Trailhead Park. Abraham expressed worry that the DNR might have an objection to the current Owl Center plan if that were the case. The commission could not confirm whether that land was converted via a swap with other land, and asked Administrator Peterson to find any information on the subject.
The commission also discussed whether the deal would be considered a lease or an easement. Abraham argued that, due to the permanent or semi-permanent state of the aviaries, along with other possible permanent changes like paved walkways, a lease would be preferable to an easement for the use of the land. Questions were also raised about possibly moving the location of the city’s firework display, as it would now be too close to the new habitats, and fences around the property. The commission expressed desire to grant the lease to the Owl Center, but overall decided that more research was needed to determine if the logistics were all set to go forward.
The commission also discussed the new garage construction at Houston High School, where Abraham acted in her role as superintendent and requested a variance for the construction. Abraham wanted clarification that the construction would not interfere with flood mitigation plans. Peterson requested a formal variance request from the school for the next planning commission meeting in January. The Planning Commission meeting adjourned at 6:20 p.m. and immediately convened the meeting for the Economic Development Authority. The EDA discussed the Dollar General Deal, noting that the “Loken parcel” has been offered to the city for purchase in case Dollar General wanted that location for their discount store. The general agreement was that it was too early to tell, as Dollar General has not yet committed to building in Houston. The EDA also discussed building up local businesses, resolving to work on being a forward-looking influence on the community to move into the future, as opposed to looking to the past.
The Houston Planning Commission will meet next at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 3, in the council chambers of Houston City Hall.