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Stratus proposal moves toward

Wednesday, November 29, 2000 by

Hearing without recommendations

Planning Commission, Environmental Board not ready

The message from committees of the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission studying the Stratus Properties proposal is clear: they need more time to study the plan. Although the item is still listed on Thursday’s City Council agenda, some observers wonder what Stratus could possibly gain from a public hearing likely to feature environmentalists denouncing the proposal and little else.

Neither advisory group will have much to tell the City Council this week. Planning Commissioners Robin Cravey, Silver Garza and Ben Heimsath could only agree on one point of recommendation yesterday: “The value and the threat of Stratus development rights should be thoroughly evaluated.”

The three, along with Commissioner Jim Robertson, told City Attorney Andy Martin and Pat Murphy of the Watershed Protection Department Tuesday that they are having a hard time grasping all the facets of the proposal, which covers land in Barton Creek, Circle C and Lantana. The proposal has not changed since it was released in October and is available on the city’s web site.

Martin said one reason the proposal has not changed is that making changes turns the proposal into a “moving target.” Then, staff is criticized for not giving the public all the latest information. “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” he said.

Heimsath noted that the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) opposes considering legislative threats in the context of what to do with Stratus’ grandfather claims under HB 1704. Heimsath said he disagreed with that assessment, as did Garza, who laughed at the idea. Heimsath said he wanted the City Council to know the Commission applauds the effort to reach agreement. “Other parties will be giving the City Council a good sound spanking.”

Pat Brodnax of SOSA told In Fact Daily she expects at least 100 people to attend Thursday’s hearing to protest the proposal. SOSA has sent emails to encourage its members to attend the hearing.

The Environmental Board committee asked staff to bring in information on a swap with Mueller Airport. But Planning Commissioners did not feel comfortable mentioning the old airport under the present circumstances.

In addition, the Environmental Board committee— Buzz Avery, Tim Jones and Joyce Conner—has suggested that the proposal would be more palatable without the Lantana tract. Avery, the chair of the committee, told Suttle that Lantana is “the anvil around your neck.” Suttle describes Lantana—which will have the highest density of the parcels in the proposal—as the property with the strongest claims under HB 1704 or Chapter 245 of the Local Government Code.

Stratus wants to convert 270 acres currently zoned for single-family use to multi-family, with some affordable housing. That portion of the property would comply with the SOS Ordinance, but the remainder would be developed under a hybrid of older water quality ordinances. Lantana already has zoning, water and sewer service, bolstering Stratus’ 1704 claims.

Both the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission committees are scheduled to meet again next week. The Planning Commission as a whole will consider the matter again on Dec. 12, two days before the final Council meeting of the year. Like the settlement with Gary Bradley, approval of the Stratus proposal will take a supermajority of the City Council—six votes. At least four members of the Council have said they cannot vote for the proposal as it now stands. But part of the reason for trying to settle all the issues between the city and Stratus is a lawsuit set for trial in late January. Stratus has agreed to accept $6.3 million in payments on Municipal Utility District reimbursables, less than half of what the company is asking for in court.

Suttle says simply that Stratus doesn’t want to fight anymore. The company wants to move forward with development while the market is hot. “In development,” he said, “timing is everything.”

Travis County steps back from

San Antonio Commuter rail plan

Most of CAMPO 2025 Plan approved

Travis County Commissioners took another step back from a commuter rail line between Austin and San Antonio with the approval of the CAMPO 2025 plan yesterday.

The current CAMPO 2025 plan states, “CAMPO supports the creation of a commuter rail district to develop, manage and operate a regional passenger rail system in the Austin-San Antonio” area. Back in May, commissioners approved language that supported CAMPO's efforts to examine all options available under state law. Yesterday, Joe Gieselman, executive manager of the Transportation and Natural Resources Department, brought back even stronger language that won unanimous support of the commissioners.

The Travis County commissioners’ new position requires that further in-depth study be completed “regarding commuter rail, its feasibility and impacts before any CAMPO endorsement of commuter rail” can happen. The strong sentiments in the recent light rail election were not lost on commissioners.

“It seems to me that this commuter rail line from Austin to San Antonio is as controversial as the light rail was for Austin,” County Judge Sam Biscoe told his colleagues at yesterday's commissioners court meeting.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner proposed combining the language of both amendments—strongly stating the need for further study, but supporting exploration of all options—in the final document.

Commissioners also agreed to amend their approved version of the CAMPO 2025 plan to include a stipulation that Travis County make no significant financial contribution to the commuter rail line without the approval of the voters. Completion of the rail line will require the approval of Austin and San Antonio, as well as Bexar and Travis Counties. At this point, only the City of Austin has taken a position to support the commuter rail line, which could reach as far north as Georgetown.

The rest of the CAMPO plan was approved with little discussion, which Planning Program Manager Elaine Day Wray credited to the county's participation in early negotiations on the CAMPO plan. Commissioner Ron Davis did ask to strike all language regarding light rail but was overruled by his colleagues. They supported language that would put a county contribution toward rail on hold until it is approved by a majority of voters. Commissioner Todd Baxter was absent from the vote.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez pointed out that the county was still a partner with the federal government in an environmental impact statement on the proposed light rail line, despite its recent failure at the polls. She said the county should stay committed to the federal contract and maintain good relationships with federal agencies.

Commissioners made only a few changes to the road plan. First, they asked that no grade separation be recommended through the Walnut Place neighborhood on US 290 Eas t in order to decrease traffic. They also corrected a typographical error on language for Gregg Manor Road. Finally, the court agreed to support development of State Highway 45 South as a toll road as long as the toll plaza is located south of FM 1327. That way, local subdivision traffic can avoid paying tolls, said Gomez, who took the proposed amendment out to the local neighborhood groups in the affected area.

Planning Commission wants to move

On on-site sewage facilities ordinance

Ordinance bogged down for months

The Planning Commission has set Jan. 16 as the absolute deadline to consider proposed revisions to the city's current onsite sewage facilities ordinance (OSSF).

City leaders have long agreed Austin should raise the bar on the current OSSF ordinance, which was adopted almost 10 years ago. The ordinance meets only the minimum guidelines set by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). Efforts to formulate the regulations, however, have stalled numerous times over grandfathering of old septic systems, lot size requirements and the vertical/horizontal separations to avoid groundwater contamination.

Last night, the Planning Commission heard a presentation from Mario Seminara of the Water and Wasterwater Department. Seminara told commissioners that the Water and Wastewater Commission's (WWWC) subcommittee continues to meet on the issue, although early timelines would have put the revised ordinance before the full WWWC in November and the City Council in December.

Chair Betty Baker asked Seminara to bring a copy of the OSSF ordinance to the Planning Commission's meeting on Jan. 16, whether the subcommittee was finished with its work or not.

“There comes a time when you have to make a decision,” Baker said..

Commissioner Robin Cravey, who served on a joint committee of the Planning Commission, Water and Wastewater Commission and Environmental Board, was also interested in speeding up the timeline on the ordinance revisions. The joint committee finished work on March 30. After that, members of the WWWC were supposed to review the ordinance and send it on to the other boards and commissions. Instead, it has been stuck in that commission’s subcommittee for months.

“Our interest in having a higher level of protection for the environment should be driving us to adopt more stringent standards,” Cravey said. “The concern that I have is that we have delayed and delayed and delayed. Meanwhile, things are going on and systems are being constructed under standards that may be—or probably are—too low.”

Based on complaints received by the city, Seminara estimated that 12 percent of all onsite septic systems fail. Seminara told commissioners that city staff had recommended inspection of older systems instead of relicensing to alleviate the concerns of existing onsite septic tank owners. The city's existing health and safety code would address problems with the systems, Seminara said.

Cravey said that many of the people who attended the meetings on the onsite septic system issue never wanted to see an ordinance adopted. He strongly urged the commission to move forward with setting a timeline. The subcommittee on the OSSF ordinance meets again today. Seminara would not speculate whether the subcommittee and the Water and Wastewater Commission could get its work done by Jan. 16. The Environmental Board has already made its suggested amendments to the current ordinance.

Once the Planning Commission reviews the ordinance, it will be sent on to the City Council. After an initial review, the Council will then submit the document to TNRCC for review. Once TNRCC is satisfied, the ordinance would be returned to Austin City Council for final approval. That procedure also could take many months .

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

Vignette to wait . . . Software maker Vignette has decided to wait for two weeks to ask for City Council approval of its downtown zoning requests. The company wants to complete negotiations on an estimated $25 million in incentives—which also need Council approval—before asking for the zoning change . . . Campaign Finance Reform . . . Campaigns for People and seven other organizations are co-sponsoring a speech by Mark Palavin of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on “ Our Judeo-Christian Tradition and Campaign Finance Reform: What’s the Connection?” on Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Dell Jewish Community Center. Other hosts for the talk include Temple Beth Israel, Texas Impact, Austin Area Inter-religious Ministries (AAIM), National Council of Jewish Women-Austin, Jewish Community Association of Austin-Community Relations Council, League of Women Voters-Texas and Common Cause-Texas . . . No action on roads . . . The Planning Commission last night postponed consideration of the Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan for 2025 until Dec. 12.

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

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