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Save Our Springs Alliance's split on Bradley Settlement nothing new?

Wednesday, March 22, 2000 by

Letters of resignation flying as chair takes stance at odds with board

Protecting the environment is more important than party loyalty, says Robin Rather, chair of the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA), in explaining why she took a position totally at odds with SOSA's board of directors to support the proposed Bradley Settlement. The settlement if approved would end litigation and establish development rules for more than 3,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land in the recharge zone for the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer in Travis and Hays counties.

The SOSA board passed a resolution Feb. 28 to oppose the proposed settlement unless major shortcomings were addressed ( In Fact Daily March 2). Rather and fellow board member George Cofer later signed a letter in support of the settlement agreement, despite the fact that several prominent members of SOSA's board were publicly telling the City Council why the deal wasn't workable (In Fact Daily March 10).

Rumors were flying that both Rather and Cofer had submitted their resignations to the SOSA board. Contacted yesterday, Cofer says he did submit a resignation but it was prompted by taking a new job as executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy. This is a new nonprofit organization formed jointly by SOSA, the Real Estate Council of Austin, and Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce whose goal is to conserve 50,000 acres of open space in the next five years. "The only way this (new job) will work would be full-time, almost compulsive work," Cofer says. "This is something I've wanted to do for years." Cofer says he did not know if the SOSA board had accepted his resignation but he heard that a scheduled board meeting had failed to muster a quorum.

As for taking a stand on the proposed Bradley Settlement at odds with the board, Cofer noted that both he and SOSA Vice Chair Mary Arnold had been in favor of the Forum Planned Unit Development (PUD), which the SOSA board had opposed. The Forum PUD was the first major development allowed a variance from the Save Our Springs Ordinance for dense, clustered development in return for setting aside mitigation land in perpetuity.

Rather declined to discuss whether she had submitted her resignation to SOSA's board, saying, "I'm not talking about internal stuff." She said it's not unusual for a board made up of strong-minded, diverse people to disagree. "This is not the first time that board members felt the need to step out and express personal opinions," Rather said, citing, like Cofer, the Forum PUD. "I was vehemently opposed to the Forum PUD and still am vehemently opposed," she says. Indeed, the Forum PUD occasioned Rather's first-ever public comments to the City Council. (See In Fact No. 171, November 1998.) "I didn't like it that Mary and George spoke out but I certainly respected they did so and I didn't hold it against them."

"As far as my willingness to be chair, that's internal to SOS," she added. "Until the board feels ready to talk about that I'm not going to comment."

Rather said her goal remains to do what she can to protect the environment. "It's not easy for me to disagree with my friends and people I respect but I need to have the courage of my convictions…I would never do anything like this without a great deal of concern, but on the Bradley deal I have to speak my truth just as others must. This is not a time to put party loyalty ahead of what is absolutely best for the environment."

Rather, who is one of SOSA's representatives on the board of the Hill Country Conservancy, said, "The most important thing we can do is raise money and buy (the Bradley) land and as much of the contributing and recharge zone as we can."

She says she came to support the Bradley Settlement through a series of events that led her to believe that this deal was the best that could be gotten under the circumstances. Rather says she fought hard to keep the Texas Legislature from passing new legislation that once again put into effect the grandfathering rules that allow certain development projects to be built under older, less environmentally friendly regulations. Once that legislation passed, Rather said she tried to initiate a lawsuit to overturn the legislation, but neither SOSA General Counsel Bill Bunch, nor outside counsel David Frederick, nor the City of Austin would sue. Bill Bunch did not return a phone message last night for comment.

I begged Bill Bunch to litigate. I literally begged him," Rather said. She said that Bunch wanted the city to file the lawsuit but the city's lawyers didn't like the odds. "So I begged Bill again. That suit just didn't happen." The failure to sue was a huge blow to SOSA's reputation, Rather said, because, "I said before to everybody, 'If you pass 1704 we will sue.' I said it early and often. When you say you will do something you have to do it," she said. "I begged Bill from the minute 1704 passed and when he would not do it I asked him to get the scariest lawyer in town to help me figure out how to do this. He hired David Frederick (of Henry Lowerre Johnson & Frederick), who came to the board meeting in August and recommended against it in the strongest way possible."

When the lawsuit didn't happen, that left negotiating with the Bradley as the only viable option, Rather said, given that not settling would in her opinion do more environmental harm than settling for the proposed terms. She said while some people think delaying Bradley by not settling would be a victory, she thinks Bradley would end up getting what he needs to develop and the end result will be worse from an environmental viewpoint. "Look at Bradley's track record," she said. "Whatever needs to get done, gets done. The LCRA ( Lower Colorado River Authority) could send water or he could do it another way."

The advantages of the Bradley Settlement, in Rather's eyes, are development built at close to SOS Ordinance impervious cover limits, with improved water quality controls, a prohibition against major employers, and a certain level of buy-in from Circle C Homeowners Association, developer Gary Bradley, the city and environmental community. Nearly as important as all that, Rather said, "We solved this problem ourselves, not the Legislature, not the courts."

"I fought to litigate as hard as I've fought for anything and I could not get a lawyer to do it. I fought at the Capital and I fought for a lawyer to take it on. If you can't do A and B, you do C," Rather said.

As far as what Bradley might do without the settlement, Rather said, "I can't capitulate and let that happen…The impact on Barton Springs would be far more horrible than under this deal. To me, it's not even a close call…This is the last, best option and we can't do nothing."

Planning Commission recommends council approval of Avery Ranch PUD

Planning Commission vote splits over connecting streets to nearby subdivisions

The Planning Commission voted 6-2 Tuesday to recommend the Avery Ranch Planned Unit Development (PUD) to City Council, adding a recommendation that two dead-end streets in nearby subdivisions not be extended into Avery Ranch. Commissioners Robin Cravey and Susana Almanza voted against the proposal and Commissioner Jim Robertson was absent. Although the commission usually favors street connectivity, about 25 neighbors from the Oakbrook Neighborhood convinced the majority that increased traffic on Squaw Valley Lane and Brimstone Lane would be detrimental to the neighborhood.

Avery Ranch is in Williamson County, north of the intersection of FM 620 and Parmer Lane. Avery Ranch represents "sort of a hole in the doughnut between Cedar Park and Round Rock," according to attorney Henry Gilmore, a sole practitioner who represents the developer, Pebble Creek Joint Venture.

Gilmore told commissioners that the 1,629-acre master-planned community would help the city compete with its suburban neighbors in offering new single-family housing stock. Gilmore said the development, which has requested annexation, is in the Desired Development Zone and will provide a number of privately owned and managed parks, a public golf course, and nearly four miles of the proposed Brushy Creek Trail and Greenway.

Emily Barron of the Development Review and Inspection Department said staff recommended connecting Squaw Valley and Brimstone Lane to streets in Avery Ranch. She said there were no topographical constraints to prevent connection and she believed there would not be a burdensome increase in traffic. However, neighbors pointed out that Squaw Valley, which is currently a two-block street, is only 27 feet wide and people often park on both sides of the street to pick up mail from nearby mailboxes. Williamson County Commissioner David Hays also wrote a letter to request that the street not be extended. He wrote, "children and families use Squaw Valley Lane for cycling, jogging, walking, skating, pushing baby carriages, and similar activities." Residents of Brimstone Lane said they had similar traffic fears.

Cravey reminded fellow commissioners that, "We have gone to some trouble to state a preference for connectivity." Cravey said he could not vote for the project because even though the area is now part of the Desired Development Zone, it is in the Northern Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and may soon be reclassified as part of the Drinking Water Protection Zone. Although the project "has a lot to recommend it," Cravey said, "I think it would be a mistake to lock in today a development that we'll be seeing coming in by pieces over the next 10 to 20 years. It's the kind of thing we've seen in the past and it's the kind of mistake I don't want to duplicate."

Gilmore said the PUD developers would limit impervious cover to a level 33 percent below what is allowed by city ordinance and have agreed to conditions requested by the city's Environmental Board. Gilmore also said developers would provide pedestrian and bicycle connections between the new subdivision and the older ones. Those connections were part of the motion approved by the commission majority. Developers agreed to donate a 2.5-acre site for police or fire substations, but Gilmore requested that the city make a decision about building the substation within one year after the first 2,500 homes are finished. The commission's recommendation included a provision that the city will make a decision on the substation within two years and complete construction within five years.

Gilmore told In Fact Daily he has been working on getting the PUD through the development process since last May. The project is scheduled for City Council consideration on March 30, Gilmore said.

Planning Commission tweaks ordinance to encourage limited redevelopment

City Council scheduled to vote on the ordinance Thursday

The Planning Commission voted to recommend some changes to development regulations Tuesday, including several suggested by the city's Smart Growth Task Force. The change that spurred the most discussion among both commission members and the public relates to changes in measurement of impervious cover on sites being redeveloped.

Pat Murphy, deputy environmental services manager, explained one change would allow some redevelopment of sites without the necessity of going through the Planning Commission and City Council. Murphy said the proposal was to allow redevelopment of up to 25 percent of the site area if the change would not result in increasing impervious cover. In addition, Murphy said, the developer would have to comply with current water quality regulations. The staff did not propose exceptions for particularly sensitive areas, such as the area covered by the Save Our Springs (SOS) Ordinance. However, the amendment approved by the commission would not apply in the Barton Springs zone.

Jim Bennett, who represents developers before the commission and City Council, said the current ordinance needs to be amended "to allow an easier process. Right now you have to go through a maze" of regulations just to turn something like a Safeway store into a fitness center.

Will Bozeman, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said, "property owners and their agents have made a compelling case for smaller developments" to be allowed to proceed with less red tape. However, he said, "I urge that the 25 percent be ratcheted down."

Bob Leonard of the Balcones Civic Association said the ordinance would allow redevelopment of 25 percent of a of 348,000-square-foot shopping center, or more than 87,000 square feet. Leonard said that great a change should trigger a public hearing process.

Murphy said the ordinance only addresses impervious cover. Other considerations, such as traffic impact and zoning would be triggered by an addition of more than 13,000 square feet if part of a parking lot, for example, was being turned into retail space.

After numerous motions and amendments to motions, the majority finally approved the amendment without reference to SOS. The hearing process would not be triggered unless redevelopment was for more than 20 percent. A provision was added that redevelopment must not conflict with an existing neighborhood plan. Staff must assess impacts on water and wastewater infrastructure, but Murphy said that is already being done. Commissioner Robin Cravey said he could not support the change unless it was applied only in the Desired Development Zone. However, Commissioners Gwen Webb and Susana Almanza were opposed to that change. Commissioner Jean Mather wanted no changes for areas that lack neighborhood plans. Commissioner Ben Heimsath abstained because he wanted a traffic impact analysis if more than 1,000 new car trips per day would be generated by the redevelopment.

Voting in favor of the amendment were Commission Chair Art Navarro and Commissioners Betty Baker, Ray Vrudhula, Webb and Almanza. Webb said, "One of our problems is it's so difficult to redevelop. This is something that ought to be available as soon as the council can consider it." City Council is scheduled to hear the ordinance amendments on Thursday.

The recommendations of the Planning Commission encompassed only a small number of the Environmental Board's lengthy recommendations. (See In Fact Daily Feb. 24.)

Changes to other ordinances recommended by the commission include a change in definition of impervious cover so that watershed ordinances match zoning ordinances.

Bradley Settlement gets new leader…Reliable sources said yesterday that developer Gary Bradley is no longer in charge of negotiations with the City of Austin and the new person at the helm is Grant Gomez. According to articles from the archives of the Austin American-Statesman (June 17, 1997), Gomez at one time owned almost 40 percent of Phoenix Holdings Ltd., which at the time owned most residential portions of Circle C Ranch. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the Bradley Settlement Thursday, March 23… Transit in Texas…The Downtown Austin Alliance is hosting a light-rail panel discussion titled Three Cities, Three Voices, Three Solutions. The event features a key transportation officials from Dallas, Houston and San Antonio moderated by KLRU-TV Channel 18's Tom Spencer. The speakers will be Richard E. Tankerson, board chair of San Antonio's VIA; Roger Snoble, president of Dallas' DART; and Shirley A. DeLibero, president and CEO of Houston's METRO. The luncheon will be held Wednesday, April 5, in the main ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel. Tickets are $25 per person. RSVP by Monday, April 3. Call 469-1766 or e-mail rsvp@downtownaustin.com… Another new council candidate…Today's the last day for candidates to file for a place on the ballot. On Monday, Grant C. Hennig, vice president of the Highland Neighborhood Association, filed to designate a campaign treasurer for the Place 5 seat on the City Council. Hennig tells In Fact Daily that volunteers are rounding up signatures for his petition to get on the ballot. Why not pay the filing fee? "I'd rather not. I'm not the richest man in the world," says Hennig, who owns a one-man business, Hill Country Carpet. "I want to bring back a voice for the core city neighborhoods," Hennig says. "I deal mostly with the northeast sector and nobody listens. I would provide a voice for these neighborhoods." Hennig's treasurer, Janice Cappiello, tells In Fact Daily, "I've known him eight years. He's a great person, a great neighbor and an upstanding citizen. He has great ideas and is concerned about the city." The Highland Neighborhood is bounded on the north by U.S. Highway 183, on the east by Twin Crest Drive, on the south by Denson Drive, and on the west by North Lamar Boulevard. Hennig is 30 years old and was born in Austin. He says he graduated from UT Austin with a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1994.

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