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City presents term sheet

Tuesday, October 3, 2000 by

For settlement with Stratus

Agreement would determine rules for development

The city’s attorneys yesterday rolled out the initial proposal for settling litigation with Stratus Properties. City Attorney Andy Martin and Casey Dobson of Scott Douglass & McConnico said this proposal—unlike the original proposal from Gary Bradley—would probably not change a lot while going through the public comment process. That’s because “Stratus has rushed to the middle,” rather than choosing to fight over regulations on every parcel of land, Dobson said.

Contacted after the meeting, Richard Suttle, attorney for Stratus, said, “We did kind of rush to the middle because there’s no reason to go through that long dance. We tried to address the city’s water quality concerns and still have a reasonable amount of development.”

City staff and Dobson addressed a small group of environmentalists Monday afternoon, releasing a term sheet for the settlement. Mark Tschurr, chair of the Save Our Springs Alliance Board, asked, “Who has decided that it is best to negotiate with (Stratus)? You are enabling them to do a deal.”

Martin told Tschurr that Stratus has “rights to develop their property. They can assert those through litigation or legislation,” or through the settlement agreement. The City Council has been informed about the negotiations in executive sessions, he said. Stratus has sued the city for $14 million in Municipal Utility District (MUD) reimbursables, because of the city’s annexation of Circle C. The city sued Stratus, among others, over the constitutionality of water quality “protection zones.” The Texas Supreme Court declared the city the victor in that lawsuit last summer.

However, the chances of the city prevailing in the MUD litigation are not as good, since it is essentially an argument over how much the city owes—not a question of whether or not the city owes anything. In addition to the agreements concerning which ordinances will govern development of Circle C West, Lantana and Barton Creek, the city has agreed to pay Stratus $6.3 million to settle the MUD litigation.

Steve Beers, a member of the local Sierra Club, asked Dobson exactly how much development would go on a certain piece of property under the proposal. Beers became impatient when Dobson said he did not know. Beers accused Dobson of “hiding the ball.”

Dobson responded, “The reason we are here is the exact opposite of hiding the ball.” Dobson said some people in Austin do play that game, but he doesn’t. Beers apologized a few minutes later for being “testy.” But he said he was frustrated by the term sheet and explanations of the proposal because both were couched in legal terms, with few actual details about what the resulting developments would look like.

Stratus has agreed to provide public access to Barton Creek on its property and has agreed to give the city an option to purchase a 46-acre tract adjacent to land owned by the Nature Conservancy. The tract, along Bee Caves Road, will be expensive. Dobson said the option is “assignable,” so that a private organization can purchase it for conservation. Dobson told the group, “This is a simpler deal than the Bradley deal. It doesn’t have as many moving parts.”

Craig Smith, president of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board, said the opposite. “The complexity of this agreement makes the Bradley deal seem simple.” Smith said one reason for the complexity is that there are three different pieces of property and different regulations will cover each one. “It’s not worse or better—just more varied,” he said.

Martin said Monday’s meetings with environmentalists would be a useful step in the process of ensuring public participation and the best deal for the city. Noting that the Bradley deal went through months of public hearings, he said, “There’s nothing like having 650,000 editors do your work.”

Dobson said that because Stratus has agreed to develop under SOS rules on Circle C, the city is assured that the result will be “dramatically better than what it would be under HB1704.” Dobson said company executives had been surprised when they lost the lawsuit over the water quality zones. Although Stratus could pursue a litigation strategy or a legislative strategy, either course of action would take too much time. “I think they looked around town and saw that people were making money under SOS. They’ve been locked in this struggle with the city for 10 years now. It’s hard to make money while your fighting.”

Ken Rigsbee of the Circle C Homeowners Association told In Fact Daily, “I think the initial concessions and agreements seem to be adequate.” He said current residents of Circle C want to make sure that any future development will be an enhancement of their property. But he said, “I’m convinced that a developer has lots of rights under (HB) 1704.” He said he supports the city’s process.

Grant Godfrey, staff attorney for the SOS Alliance, said little, but handed Martin a list of questions that he would like to see answered. For example: Does the deal include a traffic impact analysis? How does the deal compare with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service water quality protection measures? Does the deal allow a fourth golf course at Barton Creek?

Rainey neighbors tell commission

It's too late for their neighborhood

Committee meeting on revising of historic ordinance

A rewrite of the city's historic district ordinance has come too late to save the Rainey Street neighborhood, the co-chair of the area's neighborhood association told a committee of the Historic Landmark Commission last night.

The rewrite of the city's current historic district ordinance would offer new protection for designated areas with a majority of historic homes or businesses. The original was put on the books in Austin more than 20 years ago, but has yet to be used by any neighborhood.

The ordinance, if approved, would set a zoning designation to maintain the integrity of entire historic districts, rather than individual historic buildings. More than 380 buildings in Austin have been designated as historic. The designation would also mean establishing design guidelines for changes to existing homes or businesses and offer tax abatements for the enhancement of historic properties.

Rainey Street, one of 13 Austin neighborhoods designated as National Historic Register districts, would be a natural candidate for the city's historic district designation. For years, residents in the neighborhood on the edge of downtown have fought to revitalize the area, but some civic leaders now say that fight is dead. They want to sell their homes to a developer. Gordon Dunaway has made an offer to buy all the Rainey Street property and landowners are reportedly reacting favorably to the offer.

"What a wonderful idea, what great abatements this ordinance has," said Maria Elena Bernhardt in her comments about the proposed ordinance before the operations committee of the Historic Landmark Commission. Bernhardt is co-chair of the Rainey Street Neighborhood Association. "But at the same time I thought how late it is for Rainey Street. Where was this five years ago? We needed it then."

Bernhardt and neighbor Frank Lopez begged the subcommittee not to stop the progress they had made to sell their property. Bernhardt said the process to sell their land had been open at every step and that the neighborhood had deteriorated too much for revitalization efforts.

Commission members did not respond to residents’ comments, but city historic preservation officer Barbara Stocklin, who presented the ordinance, stressed that the ordinance was intended for those neighborhoods that welcomed it. Representatives from the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, who were on hand for the presentation, favor the ordinance.

"The Hyde Park Neighborhood Association did vote to support this," said outgoing president Jeff Woodruff. "What we've seen so far looks good. There's probably more work to be done, but this is what we asked for in our neighborhood plan, so we're happy you're considering it."

The current historic district ordinance has yet to be used by a neighborhood because it is unwieldy and confusing, Stocklin said. The current rewrite is a complete overhaul of the city's existing code. The historic district and endangered historic district designation would be a conditional overlay on top of any other zoning currently on the area properties.

Some of the highlights from Stocklin's presentation:

• The process for the historic district designation could be triggered by the Austin City Council, the Historic Landmark Commission or by a petition signed by 20 percent of the affected property owners. At least 50 percent of the properties within the area designated must contribute to the historical aspect of the proposed district.

• Applicants would be asked to provide a survey of the area and a summary of the historical aspects of the proposed district. The designation would be a zoning application, requiring the approval of the Historic Landmark Commission, Planning Commission and Austin City Council.

• There would be incentives and restrictions in the designation. Significant changes to historic properties beyond painting and landscaping would have to go through the Historic Landmark Commission. Those who want to significantly improve a historic property would be eligible for a 5-year (residential) or 10-year (commercial) freeze on assessed property value. Rehabilitation of substandard housing would be eligible for a 100 percent abatement of city taxes if the building was brought up to code and all repair issues are resolved.

• Illegal changes, demolitions and relocations to a designated historic landmark or property within a historic district could result in a $2,000 per-day fine. Damages could also be assessed by the city equal to the value of the structure and permits stopped on the property for three years.

Stocklin admitted certain aspects of the ordinance, such as design standards and the actual definition of the "endangered" historic district, require further discussion. She estimated it would be at least six months before a polished ordinance reached the City Council because of the need to first go through the subcommittees and committees of both the Historic Landmark Commission and the Planning Commission.

Audience members did raise questions about the ordinance. Developer Mike McHone stressed the need to avoid making the district a loophole for tax abatements for some property owners. Clarksville resident Pauline Brown asked that the city be firm with penalties on problem properties. And Mark Stine of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association asked that limits be placed on in-fill so that historic districts would not become future mixed-use corridors.

Commissioner Teresa O'Connell also raised questions on just how the petition process—whether to allow or to disallow—might work in some cases. Stocklin said those were questions that would certainly be discussed over the coming months. .

Montopolis neighborhood

Doesn't want Smart housing

LifeWorks plans apartment complex in neighborhood

One Montopolis-area neighborhood association would like the city to swap land with a developer rather than see an apartment complex go up next to its homes.

The Planning Commission took up a request from LifeWorks, for development of the Fairway Place Apartments at 1881 Grove Blvd. as the final item on last week's grueling agenda. Fairway Place Apartments is the first project using SMART housing credits to require zoning changes. The developer wants to change from LR (local retail) and SF-3 (single family) to MF-2 (multi-family), but needs parcels of land on Grove Boulevard, Fairway Street, and Clubview Avenue for the 184-unit project. Under SMART housing, the city gives financial incentives to builders who develop low and moderate-income housing.

LifeWorks, the city's oldest social service agency, plans to own the apartment project and Manadas Development Group will operate it. The plan is to devote 38 of the units to transitional housing for LifeWorks clients. The complex will include its own community center and LifeWorks counseling offices. Members of the Montopolis Area Neighborhood Improvement Alliance, who oppose the project, said they weren't anti-development or anti-LifeWorks. They're concerned about their children.

Montopolis is a place where the community library was shut down, the community police patrol stopped, the health clinic was closed and the recreation center is in jeopardy of closing, said long-time resident Griselda Guerrero-Rodriguez. Residents have been ignored for too long.

"Residents have gone unheard because of the undesirability of the area," said Guerrero-Rodriguez, adding that the area already had one crime-infested low-income apartment complex. "Now we find ourselves unheard again because of the high desirability of the area."

Across the street from the apartment site is 8.5 acres set aside for a city library. Guerrero-Rodriguez proposed swapping the two properties so that the neighborhood's children could walk to the library and the apartment complex could be located across the street from the neighborhood. Planning Commission members made no response to the suggestion.

Not every neighborhood association is opposed to the Fairway Place project. The Montopolis Area Neighborhood Alliance, Southeast Austin Neighborhood Alliance, Riverside Farms Road Neighborhood Association, The Crossing Garden Neighborhood Association and Sunridge Neighborhood Association have all signed letters in support of the project. Opponents objected that none of the neighborhood associations in favor of the project abut the property and cited a lack of proper notification to many of the affected residents in the area.

The Planning Commission delayed a vote on the variances for two weeks so the developer could hash out issues with the Montopolis residents. Commissioner Sterling Lands told neighborhood representatives that he could find few reasons not to support the project, given the need for quality affordable housing in the city. City officials also continue to support the project.

The Riverside Boulevard corridor is no stranger to apartment construction. Most of that construction, however, has been too expensive for low-income families, said Stuart Hersh, compliance services manager for the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office. SMART Housing allows the city to offer an incentive–defrayed fees–to developers who will include units for low-income families.

"There's a recognition that if we leave it to the marketplace or if we just rely on the federal dollars, we're not going to solve the problem," Hersh said. "The gap between what is offered and what people can afford continues to widen. The need for affordable rental properties and affordable homes is much greater right now than what is being produced."

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

Back from The Hill… Members of Save Barton Creek Association came back from Washington DC with an optimistic attitude that the federal government might reconsider its favorable position on the Longhorn Pipeline. Lauren Ross and Nico Hauwert spoke to a room full of federal agency lawyers last week about inadequate protections against a spill that could contaminate Austin's entire water supply, as well as the poor quality of the pipe used in the 50-year-old pipeline. . . Bradfield again…The controversial Bradfield tract at MoPac and Loop 360 is on tonight’s Planning Commission agenda again. However, Commissioner Robin Cravey has asked that consideration be postponed because he will not be at the meeting. Cravey said he needs to attend a meeting concerning Johnston High School, where his daughter is a student… Mayor on light rail… Mayor Kirk Watson is scheduled to address the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday at 11:45 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. . . Billion Bubbas. . . Planners of the Billion Bubba March met at one end of the Filling Station’ s back room while members of the Save Barton Creek Association met at the other end last night. We didn’t see any Bubbettes in the crowd. . . Campaigning everywhere…Liz Sumter, Democratic nominee for Hays County Commissioner Pct. 3, made some new friends before the SBCA meeting. Jim Camp, a member of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board, introduced Sumter to those waiting for the meeting to begin. . . Republican debate watchers. . . Texas Victory 2000, a Republican Party project, will watch the presidential debate tonight at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at 409 Colorado from 7 to 9 p.m

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

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