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Proposal for golf course, resort on park land goes to City Council

Wednesday, February 23, 2000 by

Developers seek to put item on the May 6 ballot

Members of the city's Parks and Recreation Board last night told developers to proceed to City Council without the group's recommendation on plans to build an upscale golf course and resort hotel at Lake Walter Long (In Fact Daily Feb. 16). Noting that many questions have yet to be answered, the board voted 6-1 to continue to investigate the deal put forth by developers Larry Beard, Mark Levy and Gagne Development Co. Inc. of New York. If council decides to put the issue of releasing dedicated park land on the May 6 ballot, the board promised to take up the issue again. Voters must authorize release of park land once it has been dedicated to that purpose.

Developers say if the city approves the deal they will provide a 250-room hotel, conference center and banquet facilities, swimming pool, tennis courts, and a 36-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and club house at the unutilized park on FM 973. Gagne and partners project payments to the city of $92 million during the first 20 years of the lease of the Prairie Grass Golf Club and Resort. The developers estimate about $20 million in ground lease payments, hotel fees and golf course fees, plus $72 million in property, bed and sales tax revenue.

Voting in favor of the motion for no recommendation were Chair Rosemary Castleberry and Board Members Mary Ruth Holder, Mike Librik, Clint Small, Jeff Francell, and Rocky Medrano. Board Member Elaine Carter, who is chair of the board's Land and Facilities Committee, voted no. Members Carol Kim and Erma Linda Cruz-Torres were absent.

Attorney Jay Hailey of Locke Liddell & Sapp told the board that Northeast Austin has been neglected for too long. He said Austinites would have "a unique opportunity to play a world class course at a fraction of the cost of a private one" of similar quality if the city accepts the deal.

Dick Kemp, chair of the city's Golf Advisory Board, said, "I'm a developer. I have seen at least four courses with resorts" on the drawing boards. "They're all going to go West." Kemp said chances that those Hill Country resorts would be built would diminish if the city agrees to the Lake Long project. "If one builds, the other knows his feasibility study won't work," Kemp said.

Developers provided written answers to questions put forth last week by a board subcommittee. One question was whether it would be possible to locate the golf course on park land and the hotel on privately owned property. The short answer is no. "The lake gives the project its special character and resort-like atmosphere. Without the use of the lake and convenient access for boating…and other water activities, the project would lose much of its drawing power as a business and family retreat center," according to written answers. Hailey told the board that Prairie Grass Resort would be able to compete with resorts like Barton Creek and Lakeway only because of the lake.

Carter, whose committee spent hours earlier Tuesday and last week talking with development representatives, told the group, "I have very mixed feelings about this proposal. We could say, build it and they will come, but who are you inviting? Clearly it may not be the residents on this side of town. I like the idea of the revenue coming into the city," she said, noting that the eastside needs more development. However, Carter said she was worried that the resort might raise property taxes and drive out some residents.

Francell, who made the motion, said "I have a lot of confidence that voters are not going to let something go by that isn't to their benefit."

Castleberry said developers cannot answer many more questions without an agreement to put the issue on the ballot. "It's purely a sound financial reason," she said.

Four proposed housing developments are close to the Prairie Grass Resort, including Heritage Crossing, which is being developed by Levy and Beard. Hailey said developments in the area have a disproportionate percentage of houses in the lower price range. "What (the resort) could do is bring a better mix of housing," to the area, he said, and the resort would serve as a magnet for better neighborhoods.

Howard Falkenberg, a spokesman for the developers, said developers in the area would be making market decisions about what kind of housing to offer. However, he said, "We know Beard and Levy would change the mix (of price range) and upgrade amenities," if the resort were being built. "They see this as a catalyst to tie into trails throughout the developments and tie in to the destination parks," he said. The other developments are Winding Trails, Wildhorse Ranch and Cottonwood, according to documents provided by the developers.

Leaders of Friends of the Parks wrote to the City Council Feb. 11, asking that the golf and hotel project not be put on the fast track, but go through normal review process. Those leaders–including President Karen Cannatti, Board Chairman John Hamilton, Secretary Larry Akers, and Marie Laing–asked that the project go through the Parks Board's Land and Facilities Committee. Falkenberg said Council Member Beverly Griffith asked the developers to go through that procedure. That procedure has now been completed and developers say they hope to be on the City Council's March 2 agenda.

According to the New York Times of Jan. 23, Gagne and golfer Nicklaus are building a golf course on the site of a former landfill in the Bronx.

Police Oversight Focus Group zeroes in on final report to Council

Former mayor Butler will not vote to recommend civilian oversight

The final report from the Police Oversight Focus Group is three weeks away from submission and at least one member is going to oppose the idea of establishing civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department (APD). Former Mayor Roy Butler has maintained all along that civilian oversight of police functions does not work effectively in many other cities and he will not go along with recommending it for Austin. However, he says if the City Council decides there should be civilian oversight of the APD, then he would agree that the system being recommending by the Focus Group is appropriate.

The system to be recommended will consist of a Police Auditor hired by the city manager and a Civilian Review Board appointed by the City Council. (The terms Police Auditor and Civilian Review Board are subject to change, and will be debated at the Focus Group's next meeting.)

"I want to vote against the Citizens Review Board, but if in its wisdom the council decides to have one, then I'll concur in what we're recommending," Butler said at yesterday's Focus Group meeting.

Butler's opposition is significant for he is a longtime supporter of law enforcement. Butler currently serves as vice chair of the Greater Austin Crime Commission. Modeled after similar citizen groups in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia, the commission was formed in October 1997 to support law enforcement, raise public awareness about crime prevention programs, and promote a cooperative and coordinated anti-crime effort in the community. Butler took a similar negative position on civilian oversight early in the Focus Group's work and has not changed his opinion, despite 20 meetings of the Focus Group and lessons learned by Focus Group members in two out-of-state trips.

Focus Group Member Michael Supancic, who teaches criminal justice courses at Southwest Texas State University, wrote the two parts of the draft report that cover national experience with police oversight and the auditor model of police oversight. Butler criticized Supancic's work for not sufficiently pointing out the dissatisfaction with civilian oversight in many cities. Though urged to put his suggested changes in writing, Butler did not commit to do so. "I think what's being asked for is a descriptive, two-page synopsis of why police oversight has failed," said volunteer facilitator Eric Galton, an attorney with Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody. "If someone would put that on paper I'm sure everyone would welcome that."

A major problem may exist with the proposed functioning of the proposed system of civilian oversight, in that currently the chief of police must mete out disciplinary action within 180 days of an offense or the offending officer cannot be punished. Discussion indicated that it's the police chief's policy is to have the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) complete investigations within 45 days, setting the stage for a disciplinary decision by the police chief. The Civilian Review process would add several more steps and could delay the final outcome. After much debate, primarily between Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, and Focus Group Member Ann del Llano, an attorney, consensus seemed to be reached that the Focus Group would not ask for rules to be changed to provide more time to complete the civilian review process.

Sheffield said officers under investigation are put on restricted duty where they can't work overtime or in part-time jobs outside the department, and it isn't fair to let investigations drag on. Officer Lisa Morrill noted that citizens who make complaints would also like an expeditious conclusion. Everyone seemed to recognize that the Police Auditor would need to schedule meetings of the Civilian Review Board to hear complaints in a timely fashion. "I think 180 days is going to be a problem for our system," concluded del Llano, "but I'm willing to let that play out and say, 'I told you so.'"

The budget for the Police Auditor and staff of San Jose, Calif., was reviewed by the Focus Group, which considers it a good model for the City of Austin. The San Jose office is staffed by an independent police auditor, executive assistant auditor, police data analyst, public relations person and receptionist. San Jose's police auditor has a current-year budget of about $396,000, of which $329,000 is for salaries and fringe benefits. Rent costs $49,000 a year and other expenses account for the rest. The Focus Group plans to firm up its budgetary recommendations at the next meeting.

The Focus Group is scheduled to meet again Monday, Feb. 28, beginning at 2 p.m. Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier, who before her election in 1996 was an attorney with Bickerstaff Heath & Smiley, is scheduled to appear at 3 p.m. She will brief the Focus Group on how the sheriff's department functions with disciplinary records provided to the public upon request under the Open Records Act. Some members of the Focus Group, notably del Llano, co-chair of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, argue that disciplinary records of the APD should be made available in the same way.

The Focus Group intends to wrap up most details for its written report to the City Council at the Feb. 28 meeting, and get together only once more after that to approve and sign the report.

Defect in complaint process?

After the meeting adjourned yesterday, some members of the Focus Group continued to talk about significant problems in filing complaints of alleged misconduct by Austin police. Attorneys del Llano and Tom Kolker both practice criminal defense law and both said they advise clients who have criminal charges pending against them not to file complaints against officers. Del Llano says the interviews conducted by IAD investigators sometimes focus as much on the complainant as on the officer's alleged misconduct and the interview may be used against the complainant in later criminal proceedings. Del Llano said that had happened to one of her clients, Gregory Steen, who in October 1997 was shot in the back by an officer. An article in the Austin American-Statesman archives indicates the officer received a one-day suspension and the suspension was waived. The officer was no-billed by a grand jury looking into the matter.

Del Llano said that a remedy for this problem would be to give the complainant immunity from criminal prosecution with respect to statements they make to IAD investigators, just as statements made to IAD investigators by officers cannot be used against them in criminal proceedings. "They get their immunity," del Llano said of officers. "Citizens are not treated the same as police. That's what it amounts to."

A grant of immunity for complainants still would not solve the problem of bringing more attention to the complainant's own criminal proceedings, Kolker said. "We tell clients to forget about punishing the officer and let's focus on your criminal charges for now," said del Llano.

Police endorse Quintanilla in Place 2 race for City Council

Only Place 5 endorsement still in doubt for Austin Police Association

The Austin Police Association Political Action Committee has interviewed Raul Alvarez, Gloria Mata Pennington and Rafael Quintanilla and endorsed Quintanilla in the Place 2 City Council contest to succeed outgoing Council Member Gus Garcia. "We feel like Quintanilla is a well-rounded candidate and has good community works to his credit over the last 25 years-plus," says Detective Mike Sheffield, APA president.

The PAC previously endorsed incumbent Kirk Watson for mayor and Officer Danny Thomas for Place 6. Thomas is challenging Place 6 incumbent Council Member Willie Lewis.

Place 5 candidate interviews may be delayed, Sheffield says, to see who files. Although he has not formally announced his candidacy, William P. "Will" Wynn, president of CIVITAS Investment Inc., has made known his intention to seek the Place 5 seat to be vacated by Council Member Bill Spelman. Wynn, immediate past chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance, is in the business of renovating historic downtown buildings and with partners is trying to build a 495,000-square-foot office project called Congress at 4th (See In Fact Daily Feb. 15.)

Also seeking the Place 5 seat are bicycling activist Amy Babich; neighborhood activist Clare Barry; Paul "Chip" Howe, clinical coordinator for brain-injured adults for the Mary Lee Foundation Rehabilitation Center; and formerly homeless Stephen "Twig" Meeks.

Someone who has decided he will not run against Wynn is businessman Manuel Zuniga. "Would you run against someone named Will Wynn?" he asked, meaning, of course, Will Win. Zuniga says he has not talked to Wynn but holds out the possibility that the Congress at 4th project will deter him from getting into city politics. "I'm not convinced he'll go through with it," Zuniga says. "That's an incredibly big project." Zuniga says he plans to wait and see if Wynn files to get on the ballot, something that he has till March 22 to do. If he does not, Zuniga says he will jump in. "If he dropped out, I'd hit the ground running," says Zuniga, who ran for council unsuccessfully in 1996 and 1997. Revealing his political strategy by way of a family anecdote, Zuniga tells the story about two nephews. When they were little boys and the older one was weaned from the bottle, he would follow the younger one around in case he got tired of his bottle or dropped it. "I'm like that," Zuniga says. "I'm watching that bottle."

RAKET making noise…Local hell-raiser Linda Curtis is at it again. She's scheduled a press conference for today at 11 a.m. to announce that she and fellow noisemakers will file a criminal complaint with District Attorney Ronney Earle's office to allege that the Austin City Council may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in connection with the $100 million water deal consummated with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) last October ( In Fact Daily Oct. 8). Curtis said she believes that the City Council may have improperly decided in executive session on September 14, 1998, to pursue negotiations with the LCRA, and that may be a violation of the Open Meetings Act. She says the City Charter may also have been violated by delaying legal bills from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld (In Fact Daily Oct. 6), the city's outside law firm in the deal, that should have gone to the City Council for approval. The net effect of withholding the bills until after the water deal was completed was to conceal from the public that the city was negotiating with the LCRA. RAKET stands for Reformers Appalled at Kirk's Ethical Transgressions (In Fact Daily Jan. 27), a political action committee consisting of four members of the Reform Party who hope to find a candidate to oppose Mayor Kirk Watson's reelection. In addition to Curtis the members are Martha Byram, Chad Kuepker and Debra Reyes… Artful mayor… Mayor Kirk Watson was scheduled to fly out of Austin at 9 a.m. today for a two-day program that starts tomorrow in Orlando, Fla. Watson will participate in a Mayor's Forum on Financing Arts Related Development sponsored by the Urban Land Institute. Other participants include Mayor Sam Kathryn Campana of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Mayor Barbara Miller of Santa Barbara, Calif… Jones fund-raiser… Judge Woodie Jones of the 3rd Court of Appeals will be hosting a fund-raiser Thursday, Feb. 24, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Saengerrunde Hall (next to Scholz Garden, 1607 San Jacinto). Jones, a Democrat, will face Republican David Puryear in the November general election. For more info, call 478-0002… Triana fund-raiser tonight… Judge Gisela Triana continues to raise money for her campaign to hang onto the County Court at Law post to which she was appointed. Supporters will gather tonight from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Miguel's La Bodega, 415 Colorado. For more info, call 481-0089.

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