Friday, August 25, 2000 by

City Council starts negotiations

The City Council voted Thursday to begin the public portion of negotiating with the owners of the 4,200-acre Steiner Ranch to settle a lawsuit in much the same way that the city settled disputes with Gary Bradley.

City Attorney Andy Martin presented a five-page term sheet, which will be the basis of negotiations between THL Ranch, Ltd., and other owners of Steiner Ranch, and the city. The property, which sits just south of the intersection of FM 620 and Quinlan Park Road, was part of a Water Quality Protection Zone (WQPZ).

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in June that the law allowing those zones to be created is unconstitutional.(See In Fact Daily, June 16, 2000) The law allowing FMP (formerly known as Freeport-McMoran) Bradley, and Steiner Ranch developers to exempt themselves from the city’s environmental and land use regulations, was enacted in 1995.

The court said the law violates the Texas Constitution “because it unconstitutionally delegates legislative power to private landowners.”

Mayor Kirk Watson said, “Part of what they’re hoping to do is create a place where it’s possible to live, work and shop. You won’t have the same type of need to drive into town as would be generated by office type things.” Watson compared the area to southern Williamson County. “The projection for population there is huge,” he said, and the projected traffic from that area into Austin is also huge. “Shouldn’t we be planning (development) in a way that reduces that congestion?”

Steiner Ranch, as currently proposed, would offer areas for people to live, work and shop, the Mayor said. The proposal sets a cap of 3,000 single-family homes, 2,000 apartments, 500,000 square feet of retail and three million square feet of “other uses.” Unlike the deal with Bradley, this proposal does not include the prohibition against a major employer. Instead, the “sprawl magnet” question is addressed by limiting building size to 150,000 square feet of “rentable floor area. Moreover, no single retail occupant (or group of two or more affiliated occupants) may occupy more than 100,000 square feet of rentable floor area in any structure. Retail structures on two or more contiguous parcels shall be treated as one structure for the purpose of this restriction…” Building height is limited to five stories and total office buildings are limited to 250,000 square feet.

Bradley has complained that he is having trouble finding the class of tenants he wants for his upscale development because the city imposed a requirement that no company located on his tract have more than 300 employees worldwide. That appears to be the major reason he wants to re-negotiate his deal with the city, offering to throw in more land to remove that restriction. Other developers, seeing Bradley’s new proposal, apparently want to avoid the situation. If the agreement is signed, Steiner Ranch developers have agreed to pay $100 per residential unit built into the city's coffers for affordable housing. Eventually, 7,000 to 12,000 people could live at Steiner Ranch, according to Martin. Developers have promised to "explore possibilities to provide affordable housing," but that is just one of many negotiable items in the term sheet.

As part of the agreement, the city will make wastewater service available to Steiner Ranch through a wholesale contract with WCID No. 17 or Steiner Utility Company. The developer will foot the bill for infrastructure, using existing utility easements and rights-of-way. Environmentalist Mary Arnold, who was at the Council meeting when the agreement was announced, said she objected to the city extending wastewater service “outside the city limits in the Drinking Water Protection Zone.”

The developers have agreed to donate 819 acres of land to the Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan (BCCP) and make a financial contribution to the BCCP, as directed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to the proposal, Steiner Ranch would comply “with all applicable provisions of the Austin City Code in existence” on the date the agreement is signed, except where otherwise noted. The owners agree to impervious cover limits that are in effect on the date the agreement is signed. Any golf course will be required to operate in accordance with city staff requirements. Casey Dobson of Scott Douglass & McConnico, who did yeoman’s work on the Bradley deal negotiations, is on the city’s team once again. Dobson said, "Doing this deal results in no more development than City Code compliance."

The agreement now will proceed through hearings at the Environmental Board, the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Planning Commission. Martin said he expected the agreement to come back to the City Council in mid-October.

Stovy Bowlin, the embattled general manager of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, survived a lengthy examination of his job performance Thursday morning.

"Stovy is still an employee of the district . . . there's no time limit," said Board President Craig Smith, following a three-hour executive session in which board members also decided a performance improvement plan for Bowlin was in order.

Bowlin's handling of district business has come under fire from board members after two of the district's hydrogeologists decided to quit, one of whom cited dissatisfaction with the general manager.(See In Fact Daily, Aug. 9,2000)

“It was really hard to get things moving forward, trying to do studies of the aquifer and talking to people”about those studies, said departing senior hydrogeologist Nico Hauwert, who has been with the district nearly eight years. "It always seems to be a problem with agencies not wanting to give out information until it's politically correct."

Hauwert was in his office as Bowlin and board members met in executive session. Without giving specifics, he suggested that differences over one particular study finally led him to resign. "On this one we had a particular problem with things I felt we needed to get out."

Hauwert said the institutional knowledge and skills both he and fellow hydrogeologist Jim Samson developed over the years studying the Edwards Aquifer will not be easy to replace. "For somebody new coming in it will be difficult to make all the connections, even things like recognizing specific rock types."

After a unanimous vote by the board approving its evaluation of Bowlin, Board Member Jack Goodman told In Fact Daily, “We need two new hydrogeologists right away and we need good ones.”

Goodman declined to discuss the details of Bowlin's evaluation or his performance improvement plan, but said the board decided to move on to more important matters.

“It's not just about Stovy, it's about the district itself," he said. “We have a busy schedule with the legislative session coming up and we have no business worrying ourselves about inhouse matters. We have to present a united front." To constituents who may be unhappy about the unanimous vote to keep the general manager, Goodman said, “It’s important for people to understand that there are political implications” in the decision to keep Bowlin.

Goodman said a priority for the district will be to raise the state-imposed fee it is allowed to charge water systems and large users from a maximum 17 cents per thousand gallons to 30 cents. "Capping it at 17 cents has really strained the district in the type of facilities we need."

Extra money will be needed, Goodman said, to begin putting into place aquifer recharge enhancement projects. "It’s what we are mandated by the legislature to do, to conserve and enhance the aquifer. I see it as a vehicle to ensure that the people on the west end of the aquifer have a long lasting supply. People who rely on the aquifer know they have never had to rely on surface water. It's my job to make sure they never need to."

Those #@%! bonds… Austin citizens will get a chance to vote in November on Light Rail, road bonds, and the $13.4 million in greenspace saved by the gracious Austin Museum of Art. The rest will have to wait… In the meantime…The City Council voted 5-2 to approve on second reading what is now called Mirabeau, at the southwest corner of the Congress Avenue Bridge. Council Members Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith voted against the project formerly known as Gotham. Griffith said she had not expected the development to be heard yesterday. Mayor Kirk Watson said since the project had changed, he would treat the matter as if it were coming up for first reading. Griffith seemed to object, at which point the Mayor said, “I was trying to create process– as opposed to stop process–which is what you seem to be suggesting.” Griffith asked “Would there be an opportunity to speak at third reading?” Watson replied, “Typically there would not, we’ll have to ask the City Council.” Jim Johnson, attorney for next door neighbor Doris Finkelstein, presented many of the same objections he had last year. This time, however, the applicant has apparently gotten permission to use the Hyatt Regency’ s driveway, which defuses an important argument. Consultant Sarah Crocker promised that the project’s site plan will go through the Design Commission and the Planning Commission… Sheriff sends summons… Sheriff Margo Frasier is inviting folks to raise funds and celebrate her birthday at the Manchaca Fire Hall on FM 1826 on September 5 from 6 to 10 p.m. The Austin Lesbian/ Gay Political Caucus is still boycotting Furr's Cafeterias and Outback Steakhouses, who are still sponsoring the Dr. Laura show. The group plans to announce a new group of advertisers to contact next week. ALGPC plans to demonstrate in front of the K-EYE 42 television studio on Saturday, beginning at 11 AM. K-EYE has announced plans to air the Dr. Laura Show beginning on Sept. 11. For information, contact the Stop Dr. Laura Coalition at 916-4264..

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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