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Stratus, City to show proposal

Monday, October 2, 2000 by

To environmentalists today

Last large property owner claiming 1704 protection

Attorneys for the City of Austin and Stratus Properties have agreed on a plan which–if finally approved—would settle questions about which land use controls will govern development on the last big piece of property claiming grandfather protection under Chapter 245. Chapter 245, also known as HB1704, was enacted to prevent the city from changing regulations on projects that had already entered the approval process. If the city and Stratus can reach agreement, very few acres would remain with HB1704 claims pending.

In June, the Texas Supreme Court declared the City of Austin the winner in its suit against FM Properties ( FMP)—the predecessor company to Stratus. The court declared “water quality protection zones” to be unconstitutional. The water quality law was enacted in 1995 so that FMP, Gary Bradley, and other developers could exempt themselves from the city’s environmental and land use regulations.

Since developers could no longer depend on the water quality zone regulation, their last line of defense was the grandfather law. The three largest developers claiming such protections were the developers of Steiner Ranch, Stratus and Bradley. The city and Bradley settled last spring. On August 24, the City Council began the public portion of negotiations with THL Ranch, Ltd. and other owners of the 4,200-acre Steiner Ranch. Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown & Davis, an attorney who represents the owners of Steiner Ranch as well as Stratus Properties, said Stratus would be developing between 3,000 and 4,000 acres in the Drinking Water Protection Zone.

The city has invited trustees of the Save Barton Creek Association and others to briefings to be held today on the proposed agreement with Stratus. In general, attorneys and members of the city’s Watershed Protection Department have agreed that the remaining 1,200 acres of Circle C would be developed under the Save Our Springs Ordinance– even though several tracts were approved before the SOS Ordinance was enacted. Nearly half of one 450-acre Lantana tract would be developed under SOS. That portion is expected to become multi-family housing, with 20 percent of the units set aside for affordable housing. An additional 166-acre Lantana tract is not part of the agreement. The City Council is scheduled to consider moving forward with the proposal on Thursday.

A conversation with

Council Member Will Wynn

Quality of city staff impresses new Council Member

In Fact Daily: You’ve been in office for about 100 days now. What has been the biggest surprise to you about being on the Council, or about the city?

Council Member Will Wynn: I am continuing to learn, literally every day, about the city. That doesn’t come as a surprise to me. But, at times I sit back and I am amazed at how big a city we are … At times, I am amazed at how many issues there are. I am amazed at how well we are run as a city—because there are so many areas that could blow up in your face. There are so many things that could go wrong. And that doesn’t seem to happen.

That leads me into—I wouldn’t call it a surprise either–I am absolutely, positively overwhelmed by the quality of our staff. They are challenged like they’ve never been challenged before. They are proportionately as thin as they’ve ever been. There are a number of vacancies. You know it’s always hard to keep people in the public sector when the private sector is doing as well as it is. I’m really in awe of the quality of people the City of Austin has attracted and continues to attract and has kept on board for years. The City Manager’s Office, the department directors, the people I deal with the most. I think the talent is extraordinary. The talent and the thinking are as good as any groups I’ve dealt with on the private side.

IFD: The department that has the most trouble keeping its staff–that’s most visible– is DRID ( Development Review and Inspection department). What can you do to help them?

WW: (Management has been) thinking about it longer than I have. Historically, longevity bonuses have been capped at 10 or 12 years, so after that you don’t get this small bonus for staying around. We’re going to extend that. And then, the longer you stay the more you get. (The City Council approved this measure last week.) DRID does have the biggest issue. And I’ve been challenging staff to be as creative as they can, (perhaps) looking to some degree to the private sector, whose work is indeed impacted by a thin staff. So lets figure out if there’s a way—obviously we can’t have them do anything directly with our staff. But let’s see if there are some perks and things that we can do to reward longevity and new employees at DRID. That’s a big issue. The staff has come up with some suggestions…I think it’s a huge issue. It’s interesting. The contractors and the homeowners and builders down there trying to get things done. Not too long ago it was common practice to badmouth city employees and kind of hit them over the head. The private sector has looked up and they’re not doing that any more. They just recognize that these folks at DRID are overworked. They recognize that Austin is in as active a building market as it’s ever been. We’re not proportionately any better staffed than we were just a few years ago.

IFD: The night you were elected, I talked to you. And you said your top priority was to expand green space around Barton Creek and you were looking for some private partners to help us do that. Are you encouraged about that or do you think the city needs to get out and beat the bushes a little harder?

WW: I’m encouraged. The best-organized piece of that is the Hill Country Conservancy. And I believe that relatively soon the Conservancy will be announcing the person who will be chairing the capital campaign—we’ll all be excited. And in November, we’ll have a $13 million line item on open space funds that I think will pass. But I think an important piece of that puzzle over the next 12 months (is that) there’s going to be significant momentum for the continued expansion of open space acquisition, both in true land acquisition and also in conservation easements.

( Wynn referred to results of a poll, which found that Texans ranked green space conservation a very high priority) We’ve been lagging behind other states in this. New Jersey does a much better job publicly of funding open space acquisition. I think the writing’s on the wall that we’ll have that here soon enough. But meanwhile, we need to empower as many Hill Country Conservancies and Nature Conservancies as possible, while we continue to work on a state bond package and private matching funds.

IFD: Are you at all concerned about what’s going to happen when the Legislature comes back? Do you think they’re going to try to limit our power in the ETJ or give away our authority outside the city limits?

WW: I don’t want to lower our defenses at all, but my personal perception of it is Austin is in as good a shape going into the Legislative session as we’ve been in, say, the last five (sessions). And a big piece of that is we don’t have the big well-funded developers leading an anti-Austin charge at the legislature. Either through some settlements or some recent court cases, we’ve really reduced that piece of the Austin-bashing puzzle. I think there’s been some significant inroads in the whole regionalism approach, just in the last two years. I think there’s been dramatically more discussions with regional partners than ever before. It’s rare that a week goes by that I don’t take an opportunity to meet with or talk on the phone to Judge Powers in Hays County or Pete Laney. My sense is there's significantly more relationships that have been built on a regional basis, and coming from both directions. People have recognized that we’re a sort of a region-state. And the region state of Austin competes–for better or worse–with the region states of Dallas or Houston or San Jose or Singapore. So there’s much more of a regional approach to so many of the issues that we’re all struggling with than ever before.

IFD: How do you think downtown is going? Are you concerned about the traffic?

WW: Yes. Has the city made some mistakes? Yes. Are we going to correct some of those? Yes. But traffic is going to be worse twelve months from now than it will be next month. And we have to recognize that. The overall direction of downtown I’m still encouraged by. If you look at downtown Austin, we’re still only 30 percent built out in a sense. The vast majority of our downtown is surface parking lots or smaller buildings or property that’s not even on the tax rolls, that’s not being used by any public entity that could go back on the tax rolls…Downtown should be an economic engine, not only for the city, but for the entire region. When you look at the tax base of any downtown across the world—downtowns export a significant part of their ad valorem taxes. Downtowns generate a lot more in ad valorem taxes than it costs the city to deliver services to that area, whereas many, many residential areas are about break-even for cities. So to the extent that we, as taxpayers who do not live in downtown, we should all want our downtown generating as much ad valorem tax income for the general fund as possible… So it helps to relieve the tax burden for all the residential areas where it costs more to provide the services. So, I’m very pleased that as a city we still want to revitalize our downtown—because we’re clearly not there yet.

The sad part is, we have significant growing pains right now. There’s no question about that. When you look at downtown and its history, there was a lot of growth and tax base generated in the mid-1980s. And it all stopped in 1986. There was virtually no new construction downtown from 1986 to 1998, except for the convention center. So, now we have this seemingly tremendous spike in downtown construction and tax base being delivered—but if you looked at over the last 13 or 15 years, it would have been sort of reasonable growth. I think that’s inevitable in a capitalist society…We’re proportionately just a little bit more dense than we were 15 years ago. It’s not like we’re doubling overnight, even with CSC and Intel coming downtown. In round numbers, that’s 5,000 bodies. There’s already 60,000 daytime employees downtown. That’s still just an incremental increase.

And to complicate matters, it’s happening at a time when a lot of telecommunications companies are closing our streets with very little, if any, management by the City of Austin. There are 13 different telecom companies that have different lanes of our cities closed off. The City of Austin has no power whatsoever to regulate that…The telecom companies were able to get legislation passed that gives them virtually unregulated access to city streets. My suspicion is that the slight majority of the lane closures downtown today are the telecomm companies laying fiber optic…The city actually is doing a good job in managing what it can do. We now have to go back and see what we can do to make it better.

Austin Energy customers

Snap up Green Power

Utility looking to purchase more renewables

Austin Energy has sold out of the first 40 megawatts of its GreenChoice program and is looking for more. Last week, PSINet, a global Internet provider with plans to place a service center in Austin, signed up for 144 million kilowatt hours—about 60 percent of the initial pool.

Landfill gases will generate about half of Austin’s green power and the other half will be generated by wind turbines. The landfill gas projects are located in Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. Those are expected to come on line in February. Utility spokesman Ed Clark said wind turbines located south of Midland should be added to Austin’s generating capacity by mid-summer.

PSINet joins 20 other large customers, 56 small businesses and 2,800 residential customers who have contracted to purchase the initial 227 million kWh of Green Power. Chuck Manning, general manager of Austin Energy, said, “It is pretty exciting to be in the position where we need to go right back and procure more green power to meet the interest expressed by our customers.” Manning said Austin Energy’s goal of providing at least five percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2005 “looks very much in reach.”

Today the Resource Management Commission will consider a resolution on adding more wind power to the city’s generating capacity. “We will be pursuing alternative energy options to further diversify our generation mix and as a hedge against rising fossil fuel costs,” said Manning.

Customers who have already signed up for GreenChoice agreed to pay a small premium for alternative energy sources. Customers who request GreenChoice now will be put on a waiting list. Over the past year, the cost of natural gas has doubled, making alternative energy sources more attractive. In the future, renewable resources may cost less than natural gas.

In addition to PSINet, large commercial subscribers to the alternative fuel program include: Samsung, Advanced Micro Devices, IBM, 3M, Apple, Fisher Rosemount, Solectron, State Farm, Heart Hospital, the Governor’s Mansion, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, LBJ Broadcasting Co., Hyatt Hotel, Four Seasons, La Quinta and Habitat Suites.

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

Gay/Lesbian endorsements… The Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus will meet Thursday at 7 p.m. at the AFL-CIO building, 11th and Lavaca, to hear candidates on the Nov. 7th ballot and to make endorsements. The meeting is open to the public, but only ALGPC members may vote. ALGPC members will also have an opportunity to vote on whether to endorse Austin's light rail initiative. For information, contact ALGPC at 474-0750 or by email to… More Light Rail…The local Sierra Club will meet Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the LCRA Hancock Building, 3700 Lake Austin Blvd. Panelists who will discuss light rail include Karen Rae, General Manager of Capital Metro; Susan Handy, UT School of Architecture; and Rob Dickson, Congress for the New Urbanism… On site sewage subcommittee… The Water and Wastewater Commission’s subcommittee on OSSF rules is scheduled to meet from 6-9 p.m. Tuesday at Waller Creek Center, room 104… But the Mayor's having a party…Tuesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. for District Attorney Ronnie Earle.The party will be at the Watson home, 2301 Woodlawn Blvd. Democrat Earle is facing Republican Shane Phelps on the November ballot.

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

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