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Split vote recommends airport

Wednesday, January 10, 2001 by

Get new set of citizen advisors

New board would perform many of the same duties

The split between members of the soon-to-be-defunct Airport Advisory Board was so wide last night that even the subject of how to discuss disbanding the group was contentious.

The term of the current Airport Advisory Commission ends on Jan. 15. Outgoing Aviation Director Chuck Griffith, who retires next month, has proposed overhauling the board and replacing it with a group of advisers who will have a more direct role in Aviation Department decisions. The revamped nine-member Austin Airport Advisory Commission—still appointed by the City Council—would include members with backgrounds in law, civil engineering, finance, aviation and real estate appraisal.

The proposed ordinance, set for City Council approval next week, creates a board intended to advise city staff on important decisions regarding the airport's capital improvement projects, federal grants and budget decisions. Discussion of the ordinance, however, got off to a rocky start, indicative of the two opposing sides that have formed on the commission—those who support the Aviation Department staff's direction and those who consider the aviation staff to be unresponsive.

Commissioner Joe Trochta has supported the staff and moved to approve the ordinance. Commissioner Leonard Lyons countered with a substitute motion, saying Trochta's motion was intended to sign off on the ordinance without discussion or debate. Lyons and Commissioner Hannah Riddering, both frequent critics of the board, proposed that the ordinance be given tentative approval, that amendments for each section be discussed, and then that the final version be subject to a vote. When Lyons' substitute motion failed, he walked out of the meeting.

The commission discussed several amendments, but only one made it into the final version of the ordinance. Riddering moved to add a section on a “revolving door policy.” According to the amendment, those who served on the new commission would not be allowed to bid on contracts with the city's Aviation Department for two years after they left the board. Trochta said disclosure agreements that commissioners sign already addressed the issue, but Assistant City Attorney David Peterson's review of the city's current ethics code showed otherwise.

Commissioners signed a disclosure agreement that will not allow them to solicit business during their service on the board. The city's ethics code prohibits the Mayor and former council members from approaching the city for contracts for two years after they leave the Council, Peterson said. Chair Bill Martin said the airport was going into a planning phase, with a 10- to 15-year plan for land acquisition, and that this situation could invite trouble if a board member such as a real estate appraiser decided to quit suddenly to capitalize on inside information.

“I can see how this might be a good idea,” Martin said, referring Riddering's proposal.

Shortly before the meeting ended, Riddering asked that a clear mission statement for the board be written so staff, the board and the public all know the board's purpose. Martin stated that the board needs to make decisions about what does the greatest good for the most people for the lowest cost. He said it was his job to look out for what was in the public's best interest.

With that, the board took its final vote. The ordinance, with the revolving door amendment, was approved on a vote of 4-1-1, with Riddering voting no and Martin abstaining. Martin—who could fit into a number of the new categories set out for board members—said he intends to re-apply for his position.

Planning Commission recommends

Oak Hill School be designated Historic

Owner worried about increased costs, time for rennovations

Planning Commissioners told the owner of the historic Oak Hill School last night that he should not be worried about the requirements of owning such a property, voting 9-0 to recommend that the City Council adopt the historic designation.

Jimmy Nassour, one of property’s owners, told the Commission that he had put a lot of thought into whether to seek or oppose the historic designation and had concluded that the designation would mean delays in repairing the building’s roof and windows, among other things.

The city’s historic preservation officer, Barbara Stocklin, said the old school on US 290 is one of the few remaining from the original Oak Hill settlement. It is the only surviving public building associated with Oak Hill, or Oatmanville, as it was first called. (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 5, 2000)

Nassour, an attorney, said he and the other owners cannot demolish the building because the entire property is in a flood plain. At first, he said they had tried to do a restrictive covenant to protect the building, but the city’s legal department said that such an agreement would be unenforceable. “There is constructively a restrictive covenant within the flood plain,” he said. “To tear down this building would mean we could not build anything else there. The concern I have is just the timeframe involved in the oversight (of the Historic Landmark Commission).”

The property is also in the Barton Springs recharge zone, which has an impervious cover limit of 15 percent, so the owners could not build anything in addition to the current building either, according to Adam Smith of the Development Review and Inspection Department.

Commission Chair Betty Baker told Nassour, “I can’t understand why you would not embrace the historic zoning, given the tax benefits.”

Nassour replied, “I embrace the historical building. I do not embrace the historical preservation (zoning).”

Baker said the owners of a number of significant historical buildings in Austin, including the Driskill Hotel, some of the houses on the Bremond Block on West 7th Street, and the Caswell House on 15th Street, initially opposed having the buildings zoned historic. In response to a question from fellow commission member Lydia Ortiz, Baker said the commission owes a duty to the public in making decisions about recommending a historic designation.

Commissioner Ben Heimsath told Nassour, “The significant advantages (of historic zoning) far outweigh the filters,” of the city’s process. “It’s not onerous, but it keeps the Pinky’s pagers signs and the neon yellow awnings off the buildings,” he said.

Stocklin said if Nassour wanted to replace the roof, which was originally wood, she would ask him to use wood “or some kind of composition shingle that looked like wood to try to come to a solution that is not too costly.”

“Sometimes a building owner will restore a building without the guidance of the Historic Landmark Commission and then they want it zoned historic,” she said, but because of inadvertent changes, the building cannot be given the designation.

Travis County commissioners

Not in a hurry for bond election

Commissioners want candidate projects, debt analysis, first

Travis County Commissioners decided yesterday to wait another two weeks before setting the county's next bond issue election in motion for this November.

The items on yesterday's agenda were consideration of the scope and schedule of a capital improvements bond election, as well as the appointment of a bond citizens advisory committee. While the court was generally supportive of the need for the bonds, Commissioner Todd Baxter was concerned about the impact a bond election might have on the county's current debt schedule.

That concern has led the court to ask for two things from Joe Gieselman and his staff at the Transportation and Natural Resources Department. First, commissioners would like to a see a draft list of candidate projects in order to visualize the scope of the bond issue. Second, they want to know how that work would impact the county's current debt service schedule. Even if voters were to approve a bond election this November, the county could not issue debt until 2003 without raising taxes.

Preliminary recommendations about the scope and logistics of the bond proposal were presented to the commissioners. Gieselman recommended a bond package of between $60 million and $100 million for the fall election, covering five years of projects. The projects, commissioners agree, would focus on roads, drainage and parks. The final list is likely to be selected by a 15-member advisory committee appointed by the court.

If the bond package is approved in November, the first two years will be devoted to design. Construction probably wouldn’t move forward until bonds are issued three years from now. The advantage to the fall bond election, Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said, was that a ballot is already anticipated this November for constitutional amendments—wait another year and the election would likely conflict with county commissioner races.

The bond package may need to be a balance between immediate needs and long-term goals, County Judge Sam Biscoe warned his colleagues. Some projects may be design-only—held in abeyance for subsequent bond elections. Right-of-way along many of the heavily traveled corridors in the county will likely disappear over the next 10 years, so commissioners must act, “or you will lose your opportunity,” he said.

Baxter was concerned that past and current bond issue work might overlap too much if the election were held in November. Gieselman assured him that it would be manageable. If the county chooses to wait any longer than this November to call the election, his department might dismantle the staff it put together to execute the 1997 bond issue, Gieselman said. That would mean a tremendous amount of time spent to re-staff and retool the department.

What makes the scope of this bond package particularly difficult is the growing impact the county's participation in regional mobility projects might have on the amount of the bond issue. Sonleitner told her colleagues that the extent of the county's participation in State Highway 130 was still unclear.

In 1997, the Texas Turnpike Authority estimated the county would need to contribute $39 million to right-of-way acquisition. The latest figures—released before they could be included in the modest $28 million bond package passed by the county last fall—indicated that the county would need to put up $155 million for the project.

“We can't afford $155 million under any circumstances,” Sonleitner said. By comparison, Williamson County voters approved $350 million in bonds last November. County leaders there said the funds would give the county an edge in matching federal funding.

Commissioners have requested additional information from Gieselman and Christian Smith, executive director of the Planning and Budget Department. If a timeline is approved within two weeks, a citizens committee will begin meeting in February and public hearings on initial and final drafts of proposed projects would begin this summer. Final recommendations for projects in the bond issue would then be presented to commissioners court on August 14.

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

More City Hall design talks . . . Members of the city’s Downtown and Design Commissions plan to meet jointly this evening at 6:30 p.m. at One Texas Center to hear a presentation on architect Antoine Predock ‘s design for the new City Hall . . . Hold that roadway. . . Planning Commissioners had numerous recommendations for changes to the city’s portion of the CAMPO 2025 Transportation Plan last night, citing Round Rock for doing a better job than Austin of planning its transportation future . . . Libraries closing . . . All of Austin’s branch libraries are going through relabeling of books and other materials. The Yarborough Branch at 2200 Hancock Drive is closed for the task, and is scheduled to re-open on Jan. 22. Library books may be returned to any other branch of the Austin public library when one particular branch is closed.

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

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