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Council reiterates need to

Friday, December 1, 2000 by

Discuss settling with Stratus

Timeframe for Council hearings uncertain

By Doug McLeod

After the eleventh-hour cancellation of the much ballyhooed public hearing on the city’s proposed settlement with Stratus Properties, Council Member Daryl Slusher took the opportunity to clear the air on his position. Mayor Kirk Watson and other Council Members followed his lead.

Slusher said he was reluctant to cancel the public hearing. “It’s hard for me to understand,” he said since the very groups that placed ads in The Austin Chronicle seeking to rally the public to attend the public hearing are the same groups that called for canceling it. He found the cancellation “mysterious and troubling,” especially after his push to have all discussions on the subject open and public—and the rest of the council concurring. “It’s very curious,” he said.

The settlement term sheet calls for the city to pay Stratus $6.3 million for MUD reimbursables and to agree to development terms for the 4,000 acres of Stratus holdings within or near the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The terms of the agreement do not comply with the SOS ordinance—although part of the development would comply. The city and Stratus are scheduled to go to court in January to wrangle over Stratus’ claims that the city actually owes closer to $14 million.

“I’ve been involved in this issue from the very start,” Slusher said, describing his experience as a political writer and editor for The Austin Chronicle. He recalled the day ten years ago when he received a packet of information on the Barton Creek development. “That’s when it began,” he said. The current issue of the Chronicle states that back in the early nineties he would not have agreed to talk with developers as readily as he would today. But he stated emphatically that even back then he wanted to talk in an attempt to negotiate a deal. Pressing his point, he read a letter he co-authored from the January 15, 1993 edition of Chronicle in which he says the exact same things he is saying today: to have discussions with “the other side,” to negotiate, and to do it in an open, public forum.

“The proposal that’s on the table right now does not protect the environment and we’re not going to support it,” he said. “Ignoring this situation will not make it go away.” Stratus owns a lot of land in this area, he said, and with state laws that grandfather in old, pre-SOS development terms, they can develop a lot more than with some kind of agreement with the city. He thinks the city’s chances to broker a good deal are much better today than they were in 1993 or 1995 because the current head of Stratus is more amenable to negotiation than Jim Bob Moffett was as head of Stratus’ predecessor, FM Properties.

On the possibility of the city fighting HB 1704, the law that allows developers to proceed under less stringent environmental standards, Slusher said: “Challenging the constitutionality of HB 1704 would not be prudent.”

He showed photographs of current development in the area. “This is not low-density development,” he said, noting that these were examples of development approved under grandfather laws.

“I feel the same way I did in 1993,” Slusher said. We’ve got to find a way to end this long struggle, and “we’re not going to figure it out if we don’t talk about it and we’ve got to talk about it in public.” Concerning a possible land swap with the former Robert Mueller Airport, he said, “I think we really need to talk about it. “We might be able to save Section N.” Section N is a particularly sensitive portion of the proposed development situated along Southwest Parkway and slated for higher density, mixed-use development.

Council Member Will Wynn said he wants to separate the monetary dispute from the land-use dispute. Both issues are combined in the current settlement proposal, but he said he would like to see the financial aspect settled before the January court date. “There is no question the City of Austin owes Stratus millions of dollars,” he said.

Mayor Kirk Watson said that despite what’s been reported in the press, “I don’t support the terms of this agreement.” He urged citizens and members of the media to be discerning, to look more closely at the issues and not make assumptions. Don’t just accept what your latest e-mail message states, he said.

“Let’s be willing to talk about alternatives that may not work,” he said. “Keep in mind it’s not just about reaching an agreement,” he said, stressing the need to keep an open mind in searching for a solution. He supports talking about the Mueller land swap because it could prevent environmental damage. “I don’t support this term sheet,” he reiterated. “It doesn’t go far enough.”

Council Member Beverly Griffith asked a simple question to illustrate the bottom line. “What would it take to save Barton Creek, Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer?” She borrowed a line from Joe Beal, general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, but referred to the aquifer instead of the Colorado River Basin. Griffith said, “With Central Texas changing as fast as it is, the aquifer can’t afford to wait and see what will happen when environmental conditions change. We need to be smart enough to know how the aquifer will respond to more people or more pollution, so that we can choose to take the right protective measures. That’s why the environmental model is a high priority for me.” She urged that the city do predictive modeling, like the LCRA is planning to do for the Colorado River Basin. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 27,2000)

“What we’re all interested in is protecting the environment,” she said, “especially Barton Creek, Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer. That’s the fundamental goal.” Griffith said there was still much the city could do in terms of environmental planning over the aquifer and noted San Antonio as an example of a city that’s done extensive planning. “We need to find out what it’s going to take,” she said.

Slusher said, “We’re pretty far ahead of San Antonio in terms of action, not just planning. Griffith then said, “we need to look at putting in a central sewer. Not having a central sewer is a restraint.”

Slusher agreed, but pointed out that the pictures he had shown earlier were examples of high-density development done without a central sewer infrastructure.

He said he would put an item on next week’s Council agenda to discuss a land swap with Mueller, and he asked other council members who oppose the swap to offer other alternatives. No one wants to vote for the current settlement proposal, he said, and no one wants to go back to HB 1704, “so we’ve got to be creative.”

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance and an old friend of Slusher's, voiced opposition to swapping Mueller property for Stratus. Bunch’s written statement said, “While such a land trade could ultimately be in the best interests of the City of Austin, it is too early to talk of a land trade and any such trade opportunities should be made in the context of a fair and competitive bidding process.

“We encourage the City to develop a bidding process whereby any developer, including Stratus, could trade land in the Barton Springs watershed for participation in developing Mueller Airport. If done properly, other Barton Springs watershed landowners” could also bid on Mueller, he said.

Council approves Mueller

Airport redevelopment plan

But Mayor warns Walker about inflexibility

Passage of the Mueller Redevelopment Plan at yesterday's Austin City Council meeting —after four long years of work—probably would have been sweeter if the development project hadn't become so mired in a possible Stratus-Mueller land swap.

Mayor Kirk Watson delayed yesterday's hearing on Stratus for at least a week. The City Council, however, did choose to accept the long-awaited airport redevelopment plan.

The Council also directed City Manager Jesus Garza to oversee implementation of the plan, including rezoning, evaluation and infrastructure requirements. And they asked Garza to invite the ROMA Design Group back on board to help with the plan's execution. That sets into motion a one-of-a-kind mixed-use redevelopment project for the 700 acres that were once Austin's municipal airport.

Demolition of existing airport facilities will be the first step. However, at the behest of Council Member Will Wynn, the Council agreed to try to save the original airport tower. Wynn and Council Member Beverly Griffith added caveats that the tower be preserved only if it is financially feasible and can be fit into the ROMA master plan.

Still, the possible land swap lingered in the air. Griffith distributed copies of her October memo opposing the swap to Garza and Council Members, as well as copies of the resolutions passed by the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Advisory Commission last month and the Austin Neighborhoods Council last night. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 30, 2000)

While neither resolution spoke directly to the Stratus swap, both stressed the need to move forward with the process of selecting a master developer. The implementation commission, according to its own resolution, still remains open to a land swap if it meets the goals of the conceptual master plan. While the commission remains flexible, Watson had some sharp words for RMMAA Chair Jim Walker as he spoke in favor of keeping the tower.

Watson told Walker, “I'm going to be supportive of Council Member Wynn's addition, but I'm going to say this to you also, that we have been strongly encouraging that we stay with the master plan.” He added that the planning process cannot be done in a piecemeal fashion. "It will be more difficult for us to stay with the master plan if we have new ideas come up."

Walker told Watson that the ROMA master plan does have a certain amount of flexibility involved in it and is intended to handle changes and adjustments. One of those changes is likely to be integrating the tower into the land use proposal. Dealing with those changes, Walker told Watson, is the purpose of the airport advisory commission.

Watson said it would be much easier to handle changes, such as the tower, before the master plan moved forward. Too many changes can cause delays. Walker responded that the commission was committed to making changes based upon the plan's goals and in a timely manner..

Eastside activists say Cesar

Chavez planning vote unfair

Neighborhood plan balloting unlike presidential election

City Council Member Raul Alvarez plans to spend the weekend walking door-to-door in the East Cesar Chavez (ECC) neighborhood to talk to residents about zoning associated with the area’s neighborhood plan. Alvarez was a member of the area’s neighborhood planning team before being elected.

Susana Almanza, director of PODER, told the Council Thursday that she reviewed neighborhood ballots sent to the Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department (PECSD) and found them to be irregular. “I guess this is not just happening in the presidential election, but also on the local level,” Almanza said. In addition, she complained of “irregularities on the valid petition.”

Almanza was complaining because she found that some addresses had multiple ballots, some ballots did not indicate any address and some ballots lacked a ballot number. She said 15 addresses were given a total of 56 ballots. “You can see now why we were very concerned.” Almanza asked that the zoning changes dictated by the neighborhood plan—which is on next week’s Council agenda—be postponed indefinitely.

Carol Barrett, the manager of community planning, told In Fact Daily that balloting on a neighborhood plan is nothing at all like voting for president. All stakeholders, including property owners, renters, business owners and their employees have the right to express themselves, Barrett said. That’s why there was a disparity between the number of addresses and the number of votes. She said the neighborhood planning team had a pachanga, or party, to bring people out to vote on the plan.

“There seems to be some confusion with the presidential election,” she said. The city does not have to take a vote of the neighborhood before deciding to change zoning. The balloting is “an extra step we take voluntarily before we send (the zoning request) to the City Council.”

Barrett also said that the problems Almanza was having with gathering signatures for a valid petition relate to state laws. According to those laws, a valid petition against a zoning change must be signed by up 20 percent of the property-owners within 200 feet of the property—or by the property owner himself. Renters cannot sign valid petitions and each piece of property is allowed only one vote.

Alvarez told Almanza that the zoning changes would be postponed to Dec. 14, the last meeting of the year. Others protesting the ECC zoning included Frances Martinez and Robert Donley, both members of El Concilio. El Concilio members have fought against the ECC plan since its inception.

Donley called the balloting “fraud ” and told Alvarez, “I will not stand for you to assault the neighborhood.” El Concilio supported Alvarez’ opponent, Rafael Quintanilla, in the May Council election.

Council Member Will Wynn told Donley not to place all the responsibility for the plan on Alvarez. “I count myself equally to blame and to be credited,” he said.

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

A Christmas event . . . The State Capitol Christmas tree will be lighted today at 5:45 p.m. No streets will be closed, but motorists should be forewarned . . . Not a Christmas event . . . Council Member Will Wynn says the City Council will probably decide the fate of the Hyde Park Baptist Church’s new parking garage on Jan. 18, the first Council meeting date in 2001 . . . MexicArte advances. . . The City Council approved vacation of any alley and waiving development fees for the 4th and Congress Avenue home of the MexicArte Museum . . . More passengers . . . October airline traffic from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was up more than 9 percent over October of last year. Air cargo is up more than 29 percent for the same time period . . . Those trucks on Tillery . . . The Council directed staff to start the process for a zoning change of industrially-zoned property on Tillery Street in East Austin. The noise and traffic of large trucks plague area residents day and night. The matter should make it to the Planning Commission by the end of January . . . Chestnut zoning advances . . . The Council also approved new zoning for the Chestnut Neighborhood on second reading yesterday..

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

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