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Wentworth tells RECA about

Thursday, February 1, 2001 by

Thankless task of redistricting

Wants citizens, not legislators, to do job

Sen. Jeff Wentworth considers it a bit ironic that he’s been charged with the task of redistricting, a process he’s consistently tried to dismantle for most of the last decade. The San Antonio Republican says he has firmly believed—and frequently proposed—that the process of redrawing state district lines be left to a bipartisan citizen committee rather than the very incumbent lawmakers that might benefit from drawing the lines. A total of 181 people—in a state of 21 million—are chosen for the job of redistricting, he said.

“We are the most self-interested, least objective people to handle the job, and we always do it wrong,” Wentworth told the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) at a luncheon yesterday. “It’s always challenged. We always go to federal court, and we always lose.”

Since the last session, in fact, the state has spent $5 million defending district lines in federal court. That’s because the lines are always poorly drawn, intended to concentrate the minority party and cause the least damage to the party in power, Wentworth said. Wentworth described his own district as the highest concentration of Republicans in the state, drawn intentionally to create one and not two Republican districts in Central Texas.

That may make it easy for Wentworth to win, but it’s not what Wentworth wants, he says.

“I believe every incumbent should be vulnerable every time he or she is on the ballot,” Wentworth said. “It is the only way the other party will put up people to give that incumbent a run for his money.”

While support for Wentworth’s “citizen committee” has waned, he has brought some bipartisanship to the redistricting process. His Senate committee is comprised of four Republicans and four Democrats. He declares that he intended to make sure lines are drawn fairly, or as fairly as possible. Wentworth jokes that he anticipated having few friends on either side of the aisle by the time the process is completed when the session ends in May.

If lawmakers can’t come to a compromise, the process of drawing House and Senate lines would be turned over to a legislative review board of five statewide elected officials. If Congress fails to draw the lines, the process would be turned over to the federal courts.

On other topics, Wentworth said he would be addressing at least one property rights issue this session. He has put forth legislation to give counties the right to regulate in unincorporated parts of the county.

For the last 125 years, Wentworth said, people in Texas have chosen to live in town or in the country. Those in town paid taxes and followed rules; those in the country paid no taxes and avoided regulation. That idyllic life has led to all kinds of health and safety problems. Wentworth described it as de facto “colonias all over the state.”

Under Wentworth’s bill, counties could choose to take advantage of the power to regulate development, but only with voter approval.

Environmental Board recommends

Against Temple's request for variance

Temple Beth Israel's building saga continues

By Doug McLeod

Even though city staff recommended granting a variance for new construction at Temple Beth Israel, 3901 Shoal Creek Blvd., the Environmental Board voted 6 to 1, with one abstention, against the requested variance. Board Member Buzz Avery made a motion to deny the variance because information in the required “Findings of Fact” document was “flat out wrong.”

The synagogue wants to add a classroom, an administration building, remodel an existing structure, build a parking garage and increase surface parking. The proposed development would increase the amount of impervious cover on the site, currently about 11,000 square feet, by an additional 20,037 square feet. The requested variance would allow the synagogue to build in a Critical Water Quality Zone (CWQZ) as well as in Shoal Creek’s 100-year flood plain.

According to the Watershed Ordinances Variances—Findings of Fact document, “to support granting a variance, all applicable criteria must be checked ‘yes.’” Avery pointed out that several of the six criteria, in his opinion, were definitely not “yes” as they had been marked.

Pat Murphy of the Watershed Protection Department said that because of a relatively new ordinance, the synagogue could not expand without a variance. The synagogue has been there for more than 50 years, while the watershed ordinance was only created in 1991. “There is no limit on impervious cover in an urban watershed, so that’s not an issue,” he said. And the CWQZ protection created by the ordinance doesn’t apply in this case because the site is landscaped, not natural, he said. The CWQZ was created to protect natural floodplains, he noted. In addition, Shoal Creek Boulevard runs between the synagogue and Shoal Creek. If that were not the case, he said he would have a different opinion on granting the requested variance.

Avery noted that the problem of flooding along Shoal Creek has always increased with an increase in impervious cover upstream. Board Member Tim Jones said he was concerned that there was no provision in place to offset the increase in impervious cover on the site. According to a city memo, overall impervious cover on the site is currently 41 percent and the proposed changes would increase it to 52 percent.

Mike Lyday, a senior environmental scientist with the city, said natural wetlands on the site serve to mitigate water quality problems from runoff. “A wet pond is kept alive by the spring that comes out of the rimrock,” he said. “It’s really an unusual feature, especially in an urban setting.” He said the wet pond is similar to the retention ponds the city designs, so “it serves a water-quality treatment function.”

The synagogue expansion would not be in Shoal Creek’s floodplain, and not in need of a variance, if it weren’t for the 38th Street bridge, noted Sergio Lozano, with LOC Consultants, representing Temple Beth Israel. The bridge, built about six years after the synagogue, impedes the flow of water to such an extent it has increased the size of the floodplain, he said.

“This property was not in the floodplain when originally built,” Lozano said. John McDonald, with the Watershed Department, concurred, noting that the CWQZ boundaries are dictated by the floodplain boundaries.

Board Member Ramon Alvarez said he supported recommending the variance since the synagogue was built before the city built the bridge, which shifted the floodplain so high it prohibits expansion of the facility under the current ordinance. Board Member Phil Moncada did not participate in the discussion and abstained from the vote. The recommendation will be sent to the Planning Commission for a decision.

Hot topic of the day:

City Hall architecture

Griffith questions whether public input has been considered

Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy is nothing if not persistent. He sends enormous quantities of email to the City Council, City Manager Jesus Garza and numerous other people. This week, Levy has jumped on the anti- City Hall bandwagon. The City Council is scheduled to hear a presentation on the conceptual plan at 9:30a.m.today. One of Levy’s correspondents, Carl Tepper of the Urban Transportation Commission, promised In Fact Daily he would be at the meeting to speak out against the design. How many others will show up is anybody’s guess. However, the architectural community seems solidly behind renowned architect Antoine Predock. Council Member Beverly Griffith has written that she believes “it would be prudent for us to have the architectural team review all of the public comments, respond to those issues and submit a new conceptual design for review by the public and the City Council.”

Planning Commission recommends

Mixed-use offices on MLK at West Ave.

Recovery Center's previous use not kosher for zoning class

Planning Commissioners and Bill Gurasich, a developer who sits on the board of the Austin Recovery Center (ARC), were surprised by what they learned about the ARC’s zoning Tuesday night. Gurasich said the non-profit center is the largest provider of care for indigent drug addicts and alcoholics in Travis County. As such, he said, the center at the corner of MLK Boulevard and West Avenue had been serving 4,500 people a year for the past four years. Most recently, he said, the building has been used as a dormitory and halfway house for men whose primary addiction is crack cocaine.

Betty Baker, commission chair, told Gurasich she thought that halfway houses were not allowed in MF-4 (multi-family) zoned property, such as the one under discussion. Gurasich hastily amended, saying it was “cooperative housing.” Baker was not convinced. She asked Glenn Rhoades of the Development Review and Inspection Department whether such use would be legal and he said no.

Baker said, “So we’ve had an illegal use in that building for the past four years . . . I’m not Rev. (Sterling) Lands and I find it difficult when people come in and ask for forgiveness.”

However, Baker voted along the remainder of the commission to grant GO-MU (general office, mixed use) zoning for the property so that Austin Recovery can build office space on the site and use the adjacent Goodall Wooten Mansion as administrative offices. The developer plans two levels of underground parking.

Mike McHone, speaking on behalf of University Area Partners told the commission that his neighborhood group was “very enthused with this project. We do have a concern, and we are supporting this project based upon the site plan that was presented to us.” That site plan placed the building’s parking across the street. Area sidewalks are inadequate and do not meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards, he said. McHone wanted the commission to impose improved sidewalk standards on the developer.

Baker said that the commission cannot impose sidewalks as a condition of zoning, but might be able to require better pedestrian access upon review of the site plan. She suggested that ARC not be allowed to build its parking garage until after the office buildings are completed. Commissioner Lydia Ortiz made the motion on behalf of the staff recommendation, MF-4 and LO (local office) to GO. Commissioner Ben Heimsath did not participate in the discussion and abstained from the vote, which was 8-0 in favor of the change.

The Austin Recovery Center has moved to 8402 Cross Park Avenue. Consultants for the zoning change are Amelia Lopez Phelps and Gigi Edwards.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Another deal . . . Robert Knight and Perry Lorenz have offered to act as brokers for as many of the Rainey Street residents who might want to sign on with them. Former City Council Member Brigid Shea, who lives on the historic street, says the deal being offered by Lorenz and Knight is not as good as the one offered last year by Gordon Dunaway. Dunaway, a Dallas-based developer, withdrew his offer in December because an insufficient number of the homeowners signed up to sell their property en masse . . . Technology grants . . . The City of Austin’s Telecommunications Commission will announce new Grants for Technology Opportunities at a news conference Friday morning. The City Council set aside $100,000 for projects focusing on the digital divide. For more information, contact Rondella Pugh, 499-2999 . . . More and more passengers . . . Austin-Bergstrom International Airport saw 7.6 million passengers during the year 2000, and air cargo increased by 30 percent over 1999. During December the number of people taking off from the airport jumped 6 percent over the previous year . . . City Council on the web . . . If you just can’t wait to find out what was approved by the City Council on consent, the City Clerk’s Office has a solution for you. To find out the latest council action on consent, go to http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/consent

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